London, Asharq Al-Awsat- The Director of Operations for Iraq and Afghanistan at United States Central Command (USCENTCOM), Major General Douglas E Lute expressed his concerns about the presence of ”local militias not under central Iraqi command” yesterday, saying that they could stand in the way of ”ultimate peace” for Iraq. Major General Lute”s comments came during an interview with ”Asharq Alawsat” at the American embassy in London, where he came to meet with his British counterparts to discuss joint operations between the two countries.
The Major General clarified that Iraq”s stability and future is based on building up its armed forces and regulating them under centralized control. He explained that "there are many parts of local militias remain outside the Ministry of Interior”s control. Our view is that ultimately the Iraqi political system will have to contend with these militias". He went on to express his belief that the militias "are not a factor to ultimate peace in Iraq; they actually impede the progress of Iraq".
He was firm in stating that "the Iraqi political structure has not yet dealt with them, but we suggest that these outside militias are an important ”open business” item for the emerging Iraqi government. They have to be dealt with".
Referring to reports of insurgents taking control of Iraqi towns like Haditha, Major General Lute admitted that insurgents have been able to take over ”safe havens” which are stretch from ”Al-Qaim down to the Baghdad quarter along the Euphrates river valley”. He explained that ”the enemy in Iraq depends on physical safe havens because their support by and large does not come directly from the populous itself. They need a place from which to operate; once they are eliminated, they move on. Like a plane of water on a table top, water will seek the path where it has least resistance".
Describing a pattern of ”seeking physical safe havens in Iraq”, Major General Lute stated that combatants ”go to places where the Iraqi security forces, and the coalition troops in partnership with the Iraqis, are not sufficiently mature to produce a stable alternative. So they go there, they intimidate of a while, they dominate, then we come in, they leave and go somewhere else – minus those who are killed”.
Although the Major General spoke of the use of force to root out insurgents in Iraqi towns, he remarked that ”there are sufficient examples that have not made the news that could have offered opportunities to the "Zarqawis" (referring to Abu Musab Al-Zarqwi, leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq) of the world to establish safe havens where relatively weak, not-large-in-number, Iraqi security forces and especially Iraqi police have stood up to them”. He went on to describe instances where ”local people supported the security structure and that has been sufficient to offer enough resistance to prevent a particular location from falling to insurgents".
Major General Lute stressed that ”fourteen out of eighteen provinces in Iraq did not offer any safe havens to Zarqawi. However, four provinces are not yet mature enough to offer enough resistance to make Zarqawi seek a safe haven elsewhere. Ultimately, if we preview the outcome of this, we believe Iraqi security forces are at a crucial point where Iraq itself will offer to much resistance to Zarqawi and force him to go elsewhere”
The work of USCENTCOM, under the command of John Abizaid, extends beyond operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, to encompass different regions in the world, organized according to geographical regions. Highlighting the work of USCENTCOM, Major General Lute said for the United States ”there is a bigger enemy beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, a more dangerous enemy. We label this enemy as Al-Qaeda and associated movements. The enemy pre-dates Iraq and pre-dates Afghanistan, it brought us the attack against USS Cole, against the US embassies in Africa, the Madrid bombings and apparently now it brought us the Aqaba attacks”. He stressed that ”if Iraq and Afghanistan are stabilsed, which will largely be done by way of improving their security capabilities, and progress on their political scenes. Yet, if that happens, the larger enemy will still exist. It constitutes a regional threat and a global threat. US Central Command is centered on that enemy. Yes we are fighting some of that enemy, Zarqawi for example, in Iraq. But we are fighting the broader enemy across the region”.
”The insurgency in Iraq by and large is a local insurgency, equipped and operated by Iraqis predominantly”. The Major General was clear about Iraqi domination over the attacks that have blighted Iraq over the past two years. However, he went on to add: ”for that sliver of the conflict in Iraq which has to do with Zarqawi, and the broader enemy of Al-Qaeda and associated movements, we believe that Iraq is not decisive. If they don’t fight in Iraq, they will be fighting elsewhere. So to that extent, and for that part of the enemy, we believe that there is a regional and even a global threat that will have to be taken on”.
Responding to a question as to whether American Homeland Security is now more secure due to the United States military intervention in Iraq, Major General Lute said: ”our basic military approach is that its better to play the away game than the home game”. Clarifying his statement, Major General Lute went on to say: ”The only way to fight these extremists is the offensive and not the defensive, especially since we are not willing to absorb another attack and then respond to it, but rather go and seek them out”.
The American military commander explained that decreasing troop levels in Iraq depended on training Iraqi forces. Repeating statements previously made by American officials, Major General said: "Our actions are linked to the progress of the Iraqi Security forces… as they stand up, we will stand down".
Looking ahead for the year 2006, Major General Lute stated: ”Over the next year, increasingly we will have independent Iraqi military operations and police operations. In the following year, we will see Iraqi formations operating with US assistance…we will continue to participate in operations but it will be increasingly a matter of the Iraqis being in the lead and the coalition being in the support, which is a reversal of roles from where we were about 12 months ago”.
The main obstacle facing the Iraqi forces according to Director of Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for USCENTCOM is ”time”. Drawing a parallel with the US Army, the Major General said ”In the United States, we would not think of doing the following: recruiting a battalion of 500- 600 soldiers, training them, equipping them, introducing completely new non-commission officers as their commanders, and putting them in combat within a twelve month period – it would be unthinkable, we wouldn’t do that, we have not done that since World War 2, and yet today we have tens of Iraqi battalions following that exact process”.
”We are asking a lot of the Iraqi security forces. So for those who see the glass as half empty, I would say that the glass is really half full” concluded Major General Lute.