Washington Two top U.S. generals said Thursday that the sectarian violence in Iraq is much worse than they had ever anticipated and could lead to civil war, arguing that improving the situation is now more a matter of Iraqi political will than of U.S. military strategy.
"The sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it," Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. military operations in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "If not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war."
The testimony from Abizaid and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, was the military's most dire assessment of conditions in Iraq since the war began 40 months ago. It echoed the opinion of Britain's outgoing ambassador to Iraq, who, in a confidential memo revealed Thursday, told Prime Minister Tony Blair that a de facto partition of Iraq is more likely than a transition to democracy.
Both U.S. generals said they think Iraq will be successful in maintaining a stable government in the near future, but their assessment about the possible slide into civil war is something the administration has avoided acknowledging before.
"We do have the possibility of that devolving to a civil war, but that does not have to be a fact," said Pace. "... We need the Iraqi people to seize this moment."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the Iraq violence "unfortunate" and "tragic." He said he "remains confident in the good, common sense of the American people" that running away from Iraq would amount to victory for "murderers and extremists."
Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the administration may need to seek new authorization from Congress to allow U.S. troops to fight in a civil war. Originally, U.S. forces were authorized to topple Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party.
Senators from both parties questioned whether troops were adequately trained to fight in a civil war. If it comes to that, asked Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., "which side are we on?"
"I'm reluctant to speculate about that," Rumsfeld said. "It could lead to a discussion that suggests that we presume that's going to happen. ... The government is holding together. The armed forces are holding together."
Several times during the hearing, Rumsfeld expressed concern that the committee's back-and-forth would aid the enemy. "They're waging a psychological war of attrition," he said at one point. "They want us pointing fingers at each other rather than pointing fingers at them."
The somber mood at the hearing was amplified by concern about the war in Lebanon and the possibility that it will lead to instability in the region.
"I've rarely seen it so unsettled or volatile," Abizaid said.
Baghdad not secure
The Bush administration celebrated in May the Iraqi factions' agreement to form a government and in June the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who led al-Qaida in Iraq. But violence now claims 100 victims a day, according to one report, and Baghdad is no longer secure.
Recent pledges from Bush that the United States might be able to begin reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq were upended when the Pentagon announced recently that 3,700 troops who had been planning to return home over the next two weeks will be sent to Baghdad for as long as four months.
Both generals before the committee said they could not say when the insurgency would be defeated, when Iraqi militias might be disbanded, when Iraqi forces would be strong enough to fight on their own, or when U.S. troops could begin to withdraw. Abizaid said he expects Iraq to "move toward equilibrium ... in the next five years."
All three officials said they believe that Iraq will overcome its difficulties and that pulling U.S. troops out anytime soon would sabotage the goal of building a democracy there. They said the key to stopping an insurgency of 20,000 in a country of nearly 27 million is for the Iraqi people to unite, for the government to disband armed militias, and for Iraqi security forces to grow in number and capability.
"There's something more going on in Iraq at a deeper level ... for this violence to be sustained so long and grow, not lessen," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "What do you think that something is?"
Pace responded that Graham was "fundamentally correct that if the Iraqi people as a whole decided today that, in my words now, they love their children more than they hate their neighbor, that this could come to a quick conclusion."
Republican and Democratic committee members peppered the trio with pointed questions about widespread corruption, increasingly bold militias, the growing role of Iran and the depleted state of U.S. forces.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., accused the Pentagon of "playing a game of whack-a-mole," moving U.S. troops from one unstable area to the next. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., sparred with Rumsfeld and Pace over Pentagon reports that two-thirds of Army brigades are not at an adequate level of combat readiness.
Pace and Rumsfeld said the calculations did not adequately reflect growth in the military's capability.
The day's most riveting moment came when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., read a list of policy blunders she said had led to the current Iraq crisis and accused Rumsfeld of incompetence. "Given your track record," she asked, "why should we believe your assurances now?"
After a long pause, Rumsfeld responded: "My goodness."
He said the war planning was a complicated set of decisions, taken with commanders' input and approval. "Your assertion," he concluded, "is at least debatable."
In the confidential memo obtained by the BBC, William Patey, Britain's top civil servant in Baghdad until last week, wrote that "the prospect of a low intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy."
"Even the lowered expectation of President Bush for Iraq - a government that can sustain itself, defend itself and govern itself and is an ally in the war on terror - must remain in doubt," Patey said, adding that "the position is not hopeless" and the "next six months are crucial" although Iraq would be "messy and difficult" for the next five to 10 years.
Commentators in London called the memo a new political setback for Blair, who as Bush's closest ally in Iraq has been publicly optimistic.
At a lengthy news conference Thursday, Blair said that if the memo were read in its entirety, it would show no inconsistency with what British government officials have been saying.
Roberts weighs in
Also Thursday, the Senate Intelligence Committee requested a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. "It's clear that current sectarian violence and increased militia attacks are endangering efforts to achieve stability in Iraq," Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said in a statement. "It's also clear that we now need new and better intelligence to assess our Iraq policy and military operations and options."
Roberts is chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Nearly four years ago, the committee received an estimate that contended that Iraq had biological and chemical weapons in addition to an active nuclear weapons program.