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General Abizaid Speaks Against Setting Firm Timetable for Iraq Withdrawal

November 15, 2006 at 2:50 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: The number-one question before the Senate Armed Services Committee today was: What will it take to get the chaos in Iraq under control?

Addressing that issue were Army General John Abizaid, commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East, and Ambassador David Satterfield, the State Department’s senior adviser on Iraq. General Abizaid shocked this same panel three months ago when he said Iraq could slide toward civil war. Today, he offered a reassessment.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, Top U.S. Commander in the Middle East: I’m very encouraged by my most recent trip. And that, while sectarian violence remains high and worrisome, it’s certainly not as bad as the situation appeared back in August.

It’s still at unacceptably high levels. I wouldn’t say that we have turned the corner in this regard, but it’s not nearly as bad as it was back in August, and I am encouraged by that.

KWAME HOLMAN: The question of troop levels then became the focus of this Armed Services hearing, the first since the midterm elections. There are nearly 150,000 Americans currently serving in Iraq. Several committee Democrats advocated setting a timetable to draw down U.S. forces, but Republicans resisted that approach.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: Do we need more American troops at the moment to quell the violence?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: No, I do not believe that more American troops right now is the solution to the problem.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Do we need less American troops?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I believe that the troop levels need to stay where they are. We need to put more American capacity into Iraqi units to make them more capable in their ability to confront the sectarian problem.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: So it’s your testimony that we don’t need any change in troop levels to get this right?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: It is possible that we might have to go up in troop levels in order to increase the number of forces that go into the Iraqi security forces.

McCain queries Abizaid about troops

KWAME HOLMAN: Citing the chaos that has engulfed parts of the country, Arizona Republican John McCain questioned the general's logic about troop levels.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: General Abizaid, is al-Anbar Province under control?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Al-Anbar Province is not under control, Senator.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Yet we have enough troops to take care of the problem, which you say Baghdad is the primary area. Wouldn't it make sense to say it might be well to get both Baghdad and al-Anbar Province under control before we have another battle of Fallujah and lose many more lives, because the insurgents have taken control of a good part of al-Anbar Province?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: It's easy for the Iraqis to rely upon us to do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future.

They will win the insurgency. They will solve the sectarian violence problem, and they'll do it with our help. If more troops need to come in, they need to come in to make the Iraqi army stronger. That's my professional opinion.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: So we have sufficient number of forces to clear insurgent sanctuaries, hold the territory with a combination of coalition and Iraqi forces, provide sufficient security in Iraq, so that economic reconstruction and political activity can take place, to arrest the momentum of sectarian death squads, disarm militias, to train the Iraqi army, and keep an American presence in Iraqi units, and place U.S. personnel in Iraqi police units? We have sufficient troops to carry out all those tasks?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: We have sufficient troop strength, Iraqi and American, to make those tasks become effective.

Iraqi government's role in security

KWAME HOLMAN: Senators also wanted to know what role the Iraqi government is playing in stopping the sectarian violence carried out by armed militias.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), Michigan: Do you believe, General, that Prime Minister Maliki will move against the Sadr militia?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I think he must move against the Sadr militia if Iraq is to become a free and sovereign and independent state.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Do you believe he will?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I believe he will. And he will use the Iraqi army to do so.

SEN. JACK REED (D), Rhode Island: General Abizaid, how much time do you think we have to bring down the level of violence in Baghdad before we reach some type of tipping point where it accelerates beyond the control of even the Iraqi government?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I think it needs to be brought down within the next several months.

SEN. JACK REED: Ninety days, 60 days?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Four to six months.

SEN. JACK REED: Four to six months. And you have said that your view is that the Iraqi government and Maliki is committed to do that. The $300 billion question is: When?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I think he's ready to do it now.

DAVID SATTERFIELD, Senior Iraq Adviser, State Department: We see the need for action, both on the political front and on the security front. The current levels of violence work against a political resolution, and the failure to move forward a political process, a reconciliation process, feed and sustain those levels of violence.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Would you agree with this statement, that if the current level of violence is not contained or reduced dramatically, the chance of a political outcome being successful in Iraq is almost zero?

DAVID SATTERFIELD: There is no question that, if levels of sectarian violence, if the growth of militias are not addressed and brought down significantly, that the chances of a political resolution are significantly diminished.

Partitioning Iraq: feasible?

KWAME HOLMAN: The State Department's Satterfield also ruled out an idea that has surfaced in recent months: separating Iraq along ethnic and religious lines.

DAVID SATTERFIELD: The mixed communities of Iraq are found throughout the country. There is no easy map that can be drawn, no easy political decision that can be taken, that would not involve death and suffering to achieve partition. But, more importantly than my views, is that very, very few in Iraq wish to see partition as an outcome.

SEN. EVAN BAYH (D), Indiana: With all of our assistance, all of our blood and treasure and sacrifice there, at some point we have to ask ourselves the question: Do they have it in them to forge one country and a common destiny or is that beyond their capabilities?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Yes, they have it in them. They can forge one country. They are fighting and dying for their country. They can overcome these problems, but it's not an easy thing to do, just like it wasn't an easy thing for us to forge our own destiny after the revolution.

KWAME HOLMAN: General Abizaid and Ambassador Satterfield both went on to testify before the House Armed Services Committee this afternoon. There, the general said the training of Iraqi military forces is accelerating and they could be ready to take on more of the fighting in less than a year.