By Jim Garamone
WASHINGTON, July 25, 2006 – The leader of U.S. Central Command said he believes sectarian violence in and around Baghdad is the "gravest threat" facing Iraq today. This is a decisive period in the country, Army Gen. John Abizaid told National Public Radio's John Hendren in a recent interview. "First and foremost we have to stabilize the situation in Baghdad before we need to get overly focused on leaving," Abizaid said.
Baghdad is both the largest city and political center of Iraq. It is also the primary battleground between Shiite and Sunni groups struggling for supremacy in the nation. "The sectarian violence that's taking place in the Baghdad area and up north towards Diyala province is probably the gravest threat to stability that there is in the country right now," Abizaid said to Hendren. Officials in Baghdad said that Sunni and Shiite groups have formed militias. There is a tit-for-tat response going on in Baghdad and its environs now, with several revenge killings taking place each day.
Abizaid said the government must demobilize militias. The most powerful of these is the "Mahdi Army," the armed wing of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's group. "If you don't do this, you end up with a situation like you have in Lebanon, where the militia becomes a state within a state," Abizaid said. "It makes the state impotent to be able to deal with security challenges."
For Iraq to be successful, Abizaid said, the country's government must be successful against such groups. Controlling the security situation in Baghdad is key to security throughout the country. U.S. and Iraqi officials have agreed to put more troops into the capital and its environs. Abizaid and Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., commander of Multinational Force Iraq, have discussed Iraq's security environment and the challenge Baghdad presents, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said today.
"Obviously, General Casey will position military forces within Iraq where, in his best military judgment and working with the Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces, he feels they are best suited to address that security challenge," Whitman told Pentagon reporters. "These are military matters that are his purview in terms of how he will use the force he has there." About 127,000 U.S. servicemembers are in Iraq and no plans to bring more troops into the country, DoD officials said.