WASHINGTON (AP) – Dealing with a civil war in Iraq would be the responsibility of Iraq’s own security forces, at least initially, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Congress on Thursday.
Testifying alongside senior military leaders and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Rumsfeld said he did not believe Iraq would descend into all-out civil war, though he acknowledged that sectarian strife had worsened.
Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, said the situation in Iraq had evolved to the point where Sunni-Shiite violence was more of a threat to U.S. success there than the insurgency, which continues taking a deadly toll on Iraqi and American troops, and to impede efforts to stabilize the country.
Rumsfeld previously had been reluctant to say what the U.S. military would do in the event of civil war, but in an appearance before the Senate Appropriations Committee he was pressed on the matter by Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd.
“The plan is to prevent a civil war, and to the extent one were to occur, to have, from a security standpoint, the Iraqi security forces deal with it, to the extent they are able to,” Rumsfeld told the committee. He did not elaborate on the implication of his remark: that at some point the Iraqi security forces might be overwhelmed by a civil conflict and ask the Americans to get involved militarily.
One of Rumsfeld’s chief critics in Congress, Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, issued a statement after the hearing urging the administration to explain more fully what it would do in case of a civil war.
“Obviously, it’s not realistic to depend on the Iraqi security forces, which are not yet able to fight on their own,” Kennedy said. “So, Secretary Rumsfeld is basically saying that if the prevention strategy fails and Iraq plunges into civil war, U.S. troops will inevitably be deeply involved.” Rumsfeld said the key to avoiding civil war is for Iraq’s political leaders to form a government of national unity.
In an interview posted Thursday on Time.com, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said that once the Iraqi parliament selects a prime minister, he will invite leaders of the main parties to a conference to discuss the issues facing their government. He said they will “work
together day and night until we’ve finished the job.”
At the committee hearing, Abizaid and Rumsfeld cited progress in the training of Iraqi security forces. Abizaid said more than 100 Iraqi battalions are now conducting counterinsurgency operations, compared with only five in 2004. He did not mention that the number of Iraqi battalions rated as capable of operating without U.S. military assistance had recently dropped from one to zero.
During an extensive question-and-answer session with committee members, some Democrats sharply criticized the war but the overall tone of the hearing was not hostile.
An AP-Ipsos poll released Thursday shows 77 percent of Americans think civil war is likely to break out in Iraq. They are evenly divided on whether a stable democratic government can survive in Iraq.
More than half of Americans continue to disapprove of President George W. Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq.
Abizaid, who frequently visits Iraq and has overall responsibility for U.S. military operations there, cited the dangers of rising sectarian violence. “There’s no doubt that the sectarian tensions are higher than we’ve seen, and it is of great concern to all of us,” he said, adding that he was pleased with the professionalism that Iraq’s own security forces have demonstrated in responding to the surge in civil strife since the late-February bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.
Abizaid described the situation in Iraq as “changing in its nature from insurgency toward sectarian violence.” Asked about that comment after the hearing, Abizaid told a reporter, “The sectarian violence is a greater concern for us security-wise right now than the insurgency.”
At a later news conference in the Capitol, Abizaid was asked if Iraqi troops would be expected to handle any outbreak of civil war. “It’s my impression that Iraq is not moving toward civil war,” he said, adding that the plan is for Iraqi security forces to “take the lead on most military operations, like they’re currently doing, and we’ll be in support.” The hearing was called primarily to hear the administration’s defense of its request for $91 billion (¤76.3 billion) in emergency funds mainly to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rice and Rumsfeld said the money was vital to continuing U.S. efforts on the military, political and economic fronts to establish a stable government.
Asked about the prospects for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, Rumsfeld said it would be counterproductive to set a timetable, stressing that he’s confident the Iraqis realize the enormity of the stakes at this stage of the process. “They have everything to lose,” he said. “If they are not able to put together a government in a relatively short period of time, they are facing a very difficult situation for all of the people involved in governance in that country.” There are now about 132,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The U.S. death toll since the start of the war in March 2003 exceeds 2,300, in addition to more than 17,000 wounded.