by Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
WASHINGTON, Sept. 21, 2006 – The coalition has the military capacity and the Iraqi people have the political will to get Iraq under control and moving toward a peaceful future, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East said yesterday. "Our orders are to stay out in the region, to stabilize the region, to make the region much less conducive to the extremist threats that exist throughout," Army Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, said on PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. "And it's absolutely clear to me the enemy has made Iraq the central front in the battle -- not us, but the enemy. And because of that, we are fighting at the right place at the right time, and we need to get it under control."
Quelling sectarian violence is an important initiative for coalition and Iraqi forces, but it poses a big challenge, Abizaid said. It's hard to track the small, cellular groups that move about the city, going after pre-designated and random targets, he said. Baghdad poses the key problem of sectarian violence, he said, but in the areas where U.S. and Iraqi forces have conducted targeted operations, the violence has decreased.
"We're moving step by step, section by section, and it will take some time," he said. "We will begin to really see whether or not we're being successful in a month or two."
To completely stop the sectarian violence, Iraqi and U.S. Special Forces have to target the death squads that have been behind so many murders, Abizaid said. These militias have to be brought under governmental control, and a reconciliation program needs to be developed to give the people a sense of security and hope, he said.
Based on the continued sectarian violence in Baghdad, the training of the Iraqi security forces and the conditions in other areas of Iraq, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq is likely to remain the same until next spring, Abizaid said. Fluctuations may occur as time goes on, but the ultimate goal is to shift the balance so Iraqi forces are in the lead and U.S. forces are in a supporting role, he said.
"The answer ultimately is to send more Iraqi forces in there," he said. "Ultimately, the answer is to have Iraqi police first, Iraqi military second, and U.S. forces playing an over-watch role."
The U.S. has put an enormous effort into training the Iraqi security forces to take responsibility for their own country, and every day those forces improve, Abizaid said. In most areas of the country, six of the 10 Iraqi divisions are in the lead in operations, and in southeastern Iraq, the 8th Iraqi Army Division is operating independently of U.S. forces, he said.
"They have U.S. engagement teams with them that help them if they need to bring in additional combat power, but there's a substantial effort to work with the Iraqis, bring the Iraqis on board," he said. "The Iraqi military continues to develop well. It still needs a lot of work; Iraqi police forces need a lot of work, and we're working very hard to correct some of the imbalances that exist."
More U.S. troops in Iraq would not be the answer, because it would take responsibility away from the Iraqis, Abizaid said. The country is at the point where the Iraqis need, and want, to take responsibility, he said.
"We've got to ensure that, first and foremost, people understand it's primarily an Iraqi job to maintain security," he said. "We use American forces where it really requires military effort."
Abizaid said he expects violence to escalate during the Islam holy month of Ramadan, which begins next week. Violence always escalates during this time, he said, but the coalition and Iraqi forces are ready to provide a stable environment for Iraqi citizens.
The Iraqi government is facing a lot of challenges as it builds a democracy in the heart of the Middle East, but Abizaid said he's confident they have the ability and the determination to see their country through. Abizaid said he is optimistic about success in the Middle East, because most people there want the violence to end and want a better future.
"I believe that we've got a rare opportunity to be in front of the extremist ideology," he said. "We can deliver it a very sharp blow that will not allow it to become mainstream anywhere. And, first and foremost, that requires us to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan but, more importantly, to help the people in the region have the tools necessary to resist the extremist trends."