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John Abizaid Discusses the Ongoing Violence in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqaqi

March 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: General, welcome. The al-Qaida organization in Iraq claimed responsibility today for yesterday’s big bombing. Do you believe their claims?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Certainly I believe their claims. This is exactly the sort of attack that I would expect from a person like Zarqawi, I think this is the type of attack that we’ve learned to expect from al-Qaida; that they would kill 166 people by my count, at least the troops in the field are reporting, for no reason other than they want to go to work for the Iraqi government and also people that happen to be shopping nearby is pretty much a pretty sorry display of what they stand for and what they believe in.

JIM LEHRER: Why can’t U.S. troops and Iraqi forces protect these folks from these kinds of attacks?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Well, Jim, I think it’s clear that when it comes to terrorism if you look at Israel’s experience, you look at our own experience on 9/11, it’s just simply impossible to be everywhere, protect all things at all times. You try to protect where you can; you try to do your best; you try not to have lucrative targets that are out there for the enemy to hit.

But the enemy is patient; they watch; they look; they wait; and they strike at those places where they think they can have the most effect. And so being able to protect all things at all times is just not something that we’re capable of doing.

JIM LEHRER: Zarqawi’s organization must be pretty well organized to be able to pull something like this off, right?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I think Zarqawi’s organization is under a lot of pressure. I think they’re in trouble. You have a suicide bomber. You have a vehicle filled with explosives. You have explosive experts. And you have people that have cased the target and recommended the target.

That doesn’t take a lot of people; it doesn’t take a lot of money; it doesn’t really take a lot of organizational skill; it just requires that you have a clear view about how many casualties that you can inflict and a pretty clear indication that you’re trying to make the whole enterprise of peace, stability and prosperity in Iraq fail. And that’s what he is trying to do.

JIM LEHRER: In general terms is he growing in strength or power?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: No, he’s not growing in strength. As a matter of fact, I think the broader extremist movement throughout the region is having trouble and the reason they’re having trouble is that people just can’t identify with an organization that kills indiscriminately; that despite the fact that it says it’s fighting for Muslim rights kills Muslims indiscriminately; that tortures people; that takes their heads off and then puts it on television.

People in the region are more excited by the news of elections, by the freedom to choose, by the right to move forward in a way where they have an opportunity to help shape their own future. And so a lot of the extremist message is falling on less attentive people than it used to. So I don’t think that they’re growing. I think that they’re desperate. I think they’re dangerous. I think that we need to continue to confront al-Qaida wherever it exits, whether it’s in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, whether it’s in Iraq or whether it appears anywhere else in the region or globally.

It’s a global phenomenon, it’s an extremist ideology, but one that just can’t gain adherence in mainstream Islam. Islam doesn’t accept suicide bombers; it doesn’t accept random violence; it doesn’t accept this kind of carnage. And so I think over time as people see that things are actually moving towards people having a greater choice of their own to shape the future, the extremist ideology loses credence, and I think that’s what’s happening, not the least of which also is the fact that we and the Iraqis are continuing to put pressure on this organization.

JIM LEHRER: You say over time, over how much time? How much longer is this kind of awful stuff going to continue, General?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Well, I never want to predict anything but I think the struggle against extremists in the Middle East will last a long time; it’s not a struggle designed to destroy the United States of America. It’s a struggle designed to gain territory, to unseat legitimate governments, to deny people the right to choose a better future.

And so this extremist type of ideology that is evident and practiced by people such as Zarqawi and bin Laden have been around for a long time. It’s not new. Sometimes it surfaces in great strength. Other times it’s receding. I think currently we will find that it’s receding but it remains dangerous and will be with us for some time.

JIM LEHRER: Should this al-Qaida type of action like yesterday be separated out from a more general definition of what the insurgency is in Iraq?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Yes, I think there’s clearly different people that are fighting for different reasons in Iraq and in primarily in the Iraqi Sunni Arab community. The al-Qaida types, the people that are attracted to Zarqawi are clearly hardcore terrorists. They have an extremist ideology. There won’t be any reconciliation with them.

There are others who want the United States to leave Iraq who don’t want to see a Shiite government to emerge, who don’t want Kurdish independence to take place, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, all these different -

JIM LEHRER: Different things.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: — agendas. They’ll fight to the death to keep that from happening. And the truth of the matter is that as political activity increases, the chances for reconciliation and compromise increase, with the majority of the insurgents, but over time the hard core — the hardcore Baathists, the hardcore extremists really need to be killed and captured in a campaign that’s primarily military.

JIM LEHRER: And there is a military solution to that part of it?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: There is a military solution to attacking terrorist cells. There’s not a military solution to attacking the ideology that attracts people to extremism. There is an economic, there is a political, there is a diplomatic solution that will help to tamp down some of the causes that draw people towards the extremist cause.

But I think we would be misleading people if we said military forces are going to kill all the terrorists. We certainly will do our part but ultimately the ideological components of this thing have to be addressed internationally and by our own elements of national power.

JIM LEHRER: On the political side on the ground in Iraq, General, a lot of people predict – not a lot of people – some people predicted that if the Sunnis are not brought in, somehow into the power structure after the elections, that there could be civil war in Iraq. What’s your best intelligence on that right now?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I don’t see civil war as being on the horizon. I think a civil war is possible if everything goes exactly wrong. If people abandon the path towards a sovereign and free Iraq and start moving only towards the selfish interest of specialized groups; I don’t think that’s likely.

I don’t sense that; our commanders in the field don’t sense it when you talk to Iraqi politicians — they clearly know that we’re not trying to build — and when I say “we” I don’t mean we the United States, I mean we, those of us that are involved in this project in Iraq — we’re not trying to build a Shia Iraq; a Sunni Iraq or a Kurdish Iraq; we’re trying to build an Iraq that’s for Iraqis, and I think everybody recognizes that, that’s the same politicians; and so they will move in a direction that is inclusive.

It will be contentious because it’s political, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be violent. I’m cautiously optimistic that the way ahead will be one that leads to a better Iraq, one that is one moving down the path towards representational institutions.

But I also understand that there is going to be an opportunity for violence during this period and so we should all exercise a bit of patience and a certain amount of “wait and see” attitude to make sure that the political process moves forward in the way that tamps down the violence and not encourages it.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of way ahead, you’ve begun to think already in terms of when U.S. troops – when you could start drawing down the size of the U.S. force in Iraq?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: This is primarily a political question. We give our military advice about sizes and shapes and force structures necessary to get the military job done.

In the long-term it’s clear that as Iraqi capacity builds up and also as Afghan capacity builds up in the other part of the theater that I’m responsible for, American forces will be able to come down in size; predicting when that might be or how that might be is difficult at this point.

Primarily, in Iraq, it’s difficult to say because you don’t know how the political process is going to go. I mean, we have to seat the nationalist assembly. A prime minister has got to be chosen; a presidency council; a constitution has to be written; a constitution has to be ratified, and then another national election will happen; and that will all happen between now and December. That’s a very politically charged atmosphere. It will undoubtedly cause a certain amount of concern within the country; it could lead to sporadic violence here and there.

The insurgency in the Sunni areas is not completely defeated. The terrorists continue to exist. And so while we’re optimistic about the road ahead, we should know that there’s violence ahead. The progress of Iraqi security forces will certainly be shaped to a certain extent by the political process, so if the political process encourages people to stand up, be part of the future, to serve the armed forces of Iraq and the police services in a positive way, then I think it’s possible we can think about bringing forces down.

But, on the other hand, we need to be patient about the political process and I think we don’t want to – we don’t want to make too many predictions. Nothing in the Middle East moves in a straight line. There’s all sorts of twists and turns that are unpredictable, and you have to understand that military forces provide the shield. And when I say military forces, I mean both Iraqi and American provide the shield by which politics will take place.

Every now and then politics is liable to get out of control; it’s liable to turn violent. It’s not unusual for that to happen in this part of the world. But my view is one of cautious optimism; I think in 2005 we will see the Iraqis really wanting to move forward to take on more and more responsibility, to fight the insurgency as much as they can on their own, and our primary challenge will be that of building the institution of the military and the police services so that they can take on that task.

JIM LEHRER: Why is that going so slowly, building the military institution for the Iraqis?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Well, Jim, I think that depends upon where you sit.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Where I sit I think it’s going remarkably well; when I look at what Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Casey have accomplished, both in terms of setting a security environment that was conducive to elections and at the same time building a more robust and capable Iraqi security service, I actually think that it’s been a phenomenal success.

If I look to our own history and I look to the Revolutionary War and I see how long it took our forces to develop, how many bumps on the head we had to take before we were successful, I’m actually encouraged that the Iraqis are moving in a pretty good direction.

On the other hand, the worst thing we can do is build an institution, commit it to combat, put it in harm’s way in such a manner that it breaks. We have to really solidify the chain of command, make sure that when the prime minister issues an order that it goes through a coherent chain of command that’s responsible and loyal — this is really more about loyalty and leadership than it is about numbers of troops trained and equipped.

JIM LEHRER: And you’re optimistic about this?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I’m very optimistic about it; I’m optimistic that at the end of the day the Iraqi armed forces will emerge as one of the best trained and equipped armed forces in the Middle East.

JIM LEHRER: When will that be?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: One that will be loyal to the political leadership, one that will serve the people, as opposed to what the previous Iraqi services did, which was feed upon the people.

JIM LEHRER: General, finally, do you think the American people are connected to this war in Iraq the way they should be?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I do think the American people are connected to the war in Iraq. I think they are because knowing friends and relatives that are serving in the region.

In nearly four years of war in the central command area of responsibility nearly a million Americans have passed through there. It’s hard to think that that doesn’t connect the country; the reserve components, the National Guard and the reserve components from small towns and communities all over the country are represented all over the region.

I certainly know that the sacrifice of 1,500 young Americans that have given their lives in our area is deeply appreciated by the American people. I know that because they travel throughout the country, they tell me that. I also know that, believe it or not, it’s appreciated by the people in the region as well.

We share a common hope for a better future out there and we also share a common enemy. Nobody in the region that I know of that’s educated wants the extremists to win, and they know that they can’t win without us for now.

JIM LEHRER: A magazine called American Scholar, which is the magazine in the Phi Beta Kappa Society, had an article recently, which made the point that those 1500 young Americans who are dying, the 11,000 who have been wounded are not from the elite families of America; they’re from families that are out there.

There are no senators’ sons; there are no CEO’s sons; all of that kind of milieu that used to be part of the U.S. Military. Does that concern you?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Well, I can’t speak for the senators, and I can’t speak for anybody else. I can only speak for the three four-star generals that were testifying in front of the committee today. And every one of us had very, very close relatives personally involved in fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan at one point or another.

And if you think we’re not connected, if you think the American people are not connected, it might be true that portions of the elite are not connected, but the rest of us are; I believe that very deep down.

JIM LEHRER: General, thank you very much.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Thank you, sir.