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Top U.S. Military Commanders Warn of Civil War in Iraq

August 3, 2006 at 6:15 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Defense Secretary Rumsfeld came to the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning flanked by Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace and Army General John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East.

At issue: the spiraling sectarian violence in Iraq and the conflict in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah.

For the first time, these two top military commanders publicly acknowledged that there’s a real risk of civil war in Iraq. Ranking Democrat Carl Levin first raised the subject.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), Michigan: The British ambassador to Iraq has warned that Iraq is descending towards civil war. And he said it’s likely to split along ethnic lines, and he’s reported as predicting that Iraq’s security situation could remain volatile for the next 10 years. Do you agree, General, with the ambassador from Britain to Iraq that Iraq is sliding towards civil war?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, U.S. Army: I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I’ve seen it in Baghdad in particular and that, if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: General Abizaid, when General Casey was asked at a press conference recently whether he still believed what he said last year, that he predicted that there would be troop reductions over the course of this year, he said that he still believes there will be such reductions this year. Do you personally share that view?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Senator, since the time that General Casey made that statement, it’s clear that the operational and the tactical situation in Baghdad is such that it requires additional security forces, both U.S. and Iraqi. I think the most important thing ahead of us, throughout the remainder of this year, is ensuring that the Baghdad security situation be brought under control.

It’s possible to imagine some reductions in forces, but I think the most important thing to imagine is Baghdad coming under the control of the Iraqi government.

MARGARET WARNER: Chairman John Warner expressed concern about the role of U.S. troops if full-blown civil war erupts.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), Virginia: We need only look at the Baghdad situation. Baghdad could literally tilt this thing if it fails to be brought about a measure of security for those people, tilt it in a way that we could slide towards a civil war that General Abizaid recalled. What is the mission of the United States today under this resolution if that situation erupts into a civil war? What are the missions of our forces?

PETER PACE, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: Sir, I believe that we do have the possibility of that devolving to a civil war, but that does not have to be a fact. I believe that U.S. Armed Forces today can continue to do what we’re doing, which is to help provide enough security inside of Iraq for the Iraqi government to provide governance and economic opportunity for their citizens.

The weight of that opportunity rests with the Iraqi people. We can provide support. We can help provide security. But they must now decide about their sectarian violence. Shia and Sunni are going to have to love their children more than they hate each other.

One war, two fronts

Gen. John Abizaid
U.S. Army
There is no doubt that these are dangerous times for the world, but there should also be no doubt that, with concerted international action and the application of our own substantial power, these dangers can be overcome.

MARGARET WARNER: Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton both questioned the Pentagon's judgments, past and present.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: General Pace, you said there's a possibility of the situation in Iraq devolving into civil war. Is that correct?

PETER PACE: I did say that, yes, sir.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Did you anticipate this situation a year ago?

PETER PACE: No, sir.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Did you, General Abizaid?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I believe that a year ago it was clear to see that sectarian tensions were increasing. That they would be this high, no.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: You are presiding over a failed policy. Given your track record, Secretary Rumsfeld, why should we believe your assurances now?

DONALD RUMSFELD, U.S. Secretary of Defense: Senator, I don't think that's true. I have never painted a rosy picture. I've been very measured in my words. And you'd have a dickens of a time trying to find instances where I've been excessively optimistic.

MARGARET WARNER: The other issue that was clearly on everyone's mind was the crisis between Israel and Hezbollah and the possibly negative consequences for Iraq.

SEN. JOHN WARNER: As the current conflict in Lebanon and north Israel proceeds, there is obvious concern that the crisis could spark a wider war. The firebrand Iraqi cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, said, quote, "We, the unified Iraqi people, will stand with the Lebanese people to end the ominous trio of the United States, Israel and Britain, which is terrorizing Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and other occupied nations." He also said that he was ready to go to Lebanon to defend it.

MARGARET WARNER: General Abizaid agreed there was a connection between the two conflicts.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: A couple of days ago, I returned from the Middle East. I've rarely seen it so unsettled or so volatile. There's an obvious struggle in the region between moderates and extremists that touches every aspect of life. Such extremism, whether state-sponsored by Iran or ideologically motivated by al-Qaida and its associated movements, remains a serious danger to global peace and stability.

The arming of independent militias and the subsequent undermining of state institutions by these militias is the curse of the region. If this century is to be dominated by non-state actors with no responsibility to the international community, we are in for even greater dangers.

It should not be lost on us, for example, that Hezbollah fields greater and longer range weapons than most regional armed forces. If left unchecked, it is possible to imagine chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons being transferred to militias or terrorist organizations by a state actor.

There is no doubt that these are dangerous times for the world, but there should also be no doubt that, with concerted international action and the application of our own substantial power, these dangers can be overcome.

Iraq sits at the center of the broader regional problem. Al-Qaida and Shia extremists form terrorist groups and death squads to challenge the new government and undermine confidence and a better future.

Iran talks about stabilizing Iraq, but just as in Lebanon, it arms, trains and equips local extremist Shia militias to do Iran's bidding. As the primary security problem in Iraq has shifted from a Sunni insurgency to sectarian violence...

MARGARET WARNER: The conversation continued behind closed doors this afternoon.

Foreseeing civil war

Sen. Jack Reed
(D) Rhode Island
I think we all have to ask ourselves that, if the situation is still as desperate as it seems to be today after five months and after introducing more American forces into the country, what do we do next?

MARGARET WARNER: Now, some reaction from two committee members who attended today's hearing. Republican Chairman John Warner of Virginia, who we just saw, he last visited Iraq in April. And Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode island, he was in Iraq last month.

Welcome, Senators.

Senator Warner, this was the first time that we've heard General Abizaid and General Pace be so frank in acknowledging the possibility that Iraq could slide into civil war. How significant did you find that?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Well, that's a very significant statement that was made today, and it's important that the American people and, indeed, the world hear that.

All along, I feel as senators -- I mean, excuse me, Chairman Pace and Abizaid in appearing before the committee throughout this year have given us strong, professional judgments with regard to that situation. And today perhaps was the most somber as it relates to the civil war.

But they pointed out, in their professional judgment, that civil war is not around the corner yet. You see a strong military growing in Iraq. The first signs of a civil war would be the fracturing of that military. You see a government trying to proceed with its responsibilities of sovereignty. And you see a commitment by the prime minister, who just visited here a week or so ago, that he's going to try and disband the militias, and therein would be the seeds of the commencement of a civil war in those militias.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Reed, did you see a significant shift in what the two commanders said?

SEN. JACK REED (D), Rhode Island: Yes, I did, I think in several different dimensions.

First, General Abizaid pointed out this is becoming more of a sectarian fight than an insurgency motivated by former Baathist regime elements, and that sectarian fight has dire and ominous consequences, particularly in Baghdad as Shia and Sunni fight each other.

In addition, I think they were much more candid with respect to the deteriorating situation because of the violence and the fact that time is of the essence to deal with it, and principally it has to be dealt with by the Iraqi government.

The prime minister has to not only talk about disarming the militias, he has to do it. And the complicating factor is that these militia elements are also, in some respects, part of his own government. So he has some very difficult political challenges, and only time will tell if he can prevail.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Senator Warner, the consequences of what you heard, what we heard today, General Abizaid was saying that Baghdad is actually key and that forces, U.S. forces cannot be reduced until Baghdad is secure. Can you extrapolate from that, should we extrapolate from that that the chances at this point are fairly remote of a significant drawdown of U.S. troops in this calendar year?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: I think he was, again, very candid with us, although we did not specifically talk about any drawdown, such as General Casey spoke to around six or eight weeks ago. Clearly, the complications in Baghdad, the need for additional U.S. troops there, the need also for additional Iraqi troops there indicates the seriousness of the deteriorating situation in Baghdad.

And consequently, I think it was correct to draw the assumption from the testimony of all three witnesses today that we should not look to any significant drawdown of forces in the foreseeable future.

We go back to the president's basic formula: the ground consideration and factors control any redeployment or withdrawal of those forces. And that change has not taken place for the best, by any means, given the seriousness of the situation in Baghdad.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Reed, do you share that assessment? One, is that what you heard today? And, two, do you agree? You were just in Iraq last month.

SEN. JACK REED: Well, as Chairman Warner pointed out, General Casey was talking optimistically just a few weeks ago. Now the situation has deteriorated, I think, significantly.

There are still roughly five months left in this year, and I think we all have to ask ourselves that, if the situation is still as desperate as it seems to be today after five months and after introducing more American forces into the country, what do we do next?

We're limited generally by limits on our overall force structure about putting even more troops in. So this is a very difficult, challenging moment.

I think honestly that we have to be hopeful that we can start some type of deployment, because an open-ended commitment over many, many months and years is expensive and, ultimately, I think it's difficult to sustain, given our force structure.

Seeking support from Congress

Sen. John Warner
Chair, Armed Services Committee
Congress should focus on a dramatic change if our troops are to be employed in that type of combat. We would have to go back and focus on what we have done and determine whether or not we have to do anything further to support the president.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Warner, you said something to General Abizaid, which we did quote in our piece or show in our piece, but you said -- and let me see if I can read this -- that, basically if we see a civil war really erupt, that the administration may have to come back to Congress for a new authorization to maintain troops there. What were you -- is that what you mean? Do you think that's the case, that basically you all didn't sign up for staying on in a civil war?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: I was one of the co-authors of that resolution, and I went back here recently and re-examined it very carefully. And you go back to the Constitution. Our president has the authority as commander in chief of the Armed Forces to deploy them to the far-flung places in the world to protect our freedom here at home. That he has done.

And now the question is to Congress, only the Congress can declare war. Well, factually we haven't declared any situation to be war since World War II. So what we do from time to time is pass the resolutions.

So to an extent, Congress plays a role in supporting the president's authority in the Constitution to employ our forces. Now, the resolution in my judgment was drawn up at a time when none of us, from the president on down, could ever envision the seriousness of this situation now, in terms of sectarian violence, and -- and I underline -- just the possibility of a civil war.

Now, if that were to come about, I think the American people would ask, "Well, which side are we going to fight on? Or do we fight both? And did we send our troops there to do that? We thought we sent them there to liberate the Iraqis, which we have done at a great sacrifice, 2,500-plus."

And therefore it seems to me Congress should focus on a dramatic change if our troops are to be employed in that type of combat. We would have to go back and focus on what we have done and determine whether or not we have to do anything further to support the president.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Reed, do you think there would be congressional support for maintaining troops in Iraq if it descended into civil war, however that is defined?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, if there's a civil war in Iraq, then our first obligation is to protect our troops. We can't expose them to a crossfire of various sectarian groups challenging for the legitimacy of leading Iraq.

And after that, I think you come to the issues that Senator Warner suggested, some type of legal justification.

But long before we would be voting about this, we would be forced to confront a very stark reality: Our presence in the country is dangerous to our forces and not helpful to the Iraqis. And I think, long before we took votes, the president would have to act.

I should also suggest I don't think anyone foresaw the kind of detailed violence that's going on today, but many of us did see an occupation that would be long, costly, and involving sectarian differences that are essential and part of Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Warner, actually let me...

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Can I just add a word on this...

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Senator Warner, actually, I'm dying to move on to another topic you raised today.

SEN. JOHN WARNER: All right, now I really got to say that I strongly support the president, and he has the authority to deploy our forces as he sees it's in our best interest.

And in my judgment, it is absolutely essential that we continue to support this Iraqi government and to try and enable the Iraqi people to accomplish their desire to have a freedom, a stabilized country, and to exercise sovereignty.

So I'm not suggesting in my warning that Congress may have to go back and debate -- we do that, we owe that obligation to the American people. But this senator wants to support, hopefully, the continuation of this mission to succeed.

Another Mideast conflict

Sen. Jack Reed
(D) Rhode Island
I think you're seeing some of these militias in Iraq, principally the Mahdi Army and their leader, being very supportive of Hezbollah, saying that this is the example that others should follow, others in the Islamic world.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, let me ask you about something else you did say today, which was that you were concerned about the Lebanon, Israel, Hezbollah crisis and that it could spill over and hurt the situation in Iraq. And specifically you said you were concerned that the decisions and rhetoric coming out of Washington not adversely affect American troops in Iraq. What did you mean by that?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Let me say very carefully the following: Israel was attacked wrongfully. Its sovereignty was challenged by Hezbollah. Israel has a right to defend itself, and it has done that.

Now, the question is the role of the United States. We traditionally have tried to give support to the Israeli people to maintain their independence and their sovereignty. In the resolution that we passed here in this Senate, that was set forth ever so clearly.

The point I make, as we try to do our role traditionally as an honest broker, to help Israel, to help stop this conflict, then we must do it in a way that we do not engender any greater risk to our forces fighting in Iraq.

As I say, we've already lost 2,500-plus, 20,000-some-odd wounded, in three years. We've got an enormous investment to see that situation succeeds, and I would hope that what we do -- and we were reassured by the secretary of defense today -- that, as we proceed to try and work out the resolution of the problem between Israel, Hezbollah, Lebanon and Palestine, then we do it in such a way as not to incite further harm to our troops who are bravely fighting in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Senator Reed, do you think that the actions of the administration or the Congress and the words coming out of Washington so far in support of Israel have endangered American interests or American troops elsewhere in the region?

SEN. JACK REED: I don't think the words and the actions so far have. I think what is problematic though is that Hezbollah, because of its resistance so far -- and I think it's creating a mythic quality disproportionate to its actual effectiveness on the battlefield -- but it is creating on the Arab and Islamic street this sense that they might be emulated in Iraq and elsewhere.

And also, I think you're seeing some of these militias in Iraq, principally the Mahdi Army and their leader, being very supportive of Hezbollah, saying that this is the example that others should follow, others in the Islamic world. I think that perception is perhaps endangering our troops, but I don't think it's a direct function of what is being said here or what's being done by the administration.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just get Senator Reed to follow up on that. Do you agree with General Abizaid, Senator Reed, that there is a parallelism between Hezbollah being this armed state within a state within Lebanon and the growth and increasing violence on the part of Shiite militias in Iraq?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, I probed General Abizaid on that. And I do think there is a parallelism. But one of the complicating factors in Iraq is that the Mahdi Army and its leader, Sadr, they're not only a militia, but they also have a presence in the Iraqi government. They control...

MARGARET WARNER: Just as Hezbollah does in Lebanon.

SEN. JACK REED: Just as Hezbollah does in Lebanon. And this Maliki government is one we support, and that's what makes this situation in Baghdad and Iraq infinitely complicated.

It's not a fight just by some outlaw bands; you have people that are involved in the government. And it makes it very difficult for the prime minister to move effectively against these forces. And my sense is, if we don't move effectively, or the Iraqi government doesn't move effectively against particularly the Mahdi Army, that this situation will continue to deteriorate.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think we're headed that way, Senator Warner, in which the Mahdi Army essentially becomes almost like Hezbollah, but within Iraq?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Well, I think, as my colleague said, they're much like the Hezbollah now, in terms of their actions. And they are getting a certain amount of support from Iran which, indeed, is the principal supporter of arms and supplies, together with Syria to Hezbollah.

So when I made that connection earlier, I'm just concerned that, as we fulfill the role which we must as honest broker in trying to bring back a resolution of the fighting in the Israeli-Lebanon theater, that we do so in a way not to engender any greater risk to our forces.

Now, you'll notice of recent the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei and other members of the religious organization in Iraq have been speaking out and speaking out against actions of the United States as if we were giving unqualified support to Israel. And, of course, I don't think we are.

We're giving a very judicious, honest-broker advice and support to try and resolve the suffering on both sides of that conflict in the Israeli-Lebanon theater.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Senator John Warner, Senator Jack Reed, thank you both.