Abizaid Says Percentage of Foreigners Increasing in Iraq
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 27, 2005 The percentage of foreign fighters in Iraq is increasing, the top U.S. military official in the region said today.
Speaking to CNN's Wolf Blitzer in Mosul, Iraq, Army Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, said most of the insurgents in the country are Iraqis, but "the percentage of foreign fighters over the past several months seems to have increased."
He said this is because fewer Iraqis have decided to resort to violence. "The terrorist groups such as that led by Abu Musab al Zarqawi continue to be very dangerous," he said. Zarqawi, who has claimed responsibility for the most horrendous attacks in the country, is affiliated with al Qaeda. The group is operating primarily in the Sunni areas of Iraq and areas with a mixed population, such as Mosul.
But many Iraqis still are in the insurgency. "Many of the former Baathist criminals, who know they won't have an opportunity to participate in the political future of the country, are continuing to fight," the general said.
But the elections of Jan. 30 encouraged Iraqis, Abizaid said, and the performance of the Iraqi security forces in those elections also is a cause for hope. "Certainly it's better since the election," Abizaid said. "I think continued military operations and continuing strengthening of the Iraqi security forces will make it better still."
He said the most well-established and well-known route for foreign terrorists goes through Syria. Syrian forces know there are cells in Damascus, Aleppo and other Syrian cities that facilitate foreign fighters going to Iraq, he added. "Their security services can find those facilitation cells; they can dismantle them," Abizaid said. "And they can certainly go after the people we have identified by name that are former members of the regime that are coordinating actions inside Syria."
The general stopped short of saying the Syrian government is making sure foreign fighters get through to Iraq. "I won't go so far as to say that these groups have the active support of the Syrian government," he said, "but the Syrians certainly aren't doing enough to shut off their support for the insurgency."
He said Iran is also paying close attention to what is happening in Iraq. "We know that Iranian intelligence services people were involved with Muqtada al-Sadr during the uprisings back in April," he said, "and then again in November (Iranian operatives) showed themselves in the Najaf area."
Both Syria and Iran must realize that the best thing that could happen in the region is for a peaceful, prosperous Iraq to take shape, he said.
Abizaid said he is encouraged by all the political maneuvering going on in regard to the formation of the new government in Baghdad, but said "the longer the delay in forming a new Iraqi government, the more uncertainty there will be."
Uncertainty means a greater chance of violence. "My view is the vast majority of people in Iraq, regardless of ethnicity, are moderate people," he said. "They want to move forward to a better era of peace and prosperity. The whole question is whether or not the political leadership can get together and show the statesmanship necessary to move the country together as Iraqis. I'm optimistic they'll be able to do that."
Once the government is established and more Iraqi security forces are trained, there will be "an opportunity for a substantial drawdown in our own forces," he said.
Abizaid had harsh words for Sunni Arab leaders. Many Sunni groups boycotted the election. "There is certainly a Sunni leadership that needs to step forward and lead the Sunni community to participate in the future of a peaceful and prosperous Iraq," he said. "They need to step forward now.
"There are many influential Sunni Arab leaders that can move the community forward," he continued. "They know who they are. They need to step forward, and they need to participate in the future. I believe that the door is open to them."
Abizaid said that it is Iraqis, not Americans or other coalition powers, that will make the decisions in the country. "There is a great opportunity in 2005 for the Iraqi political process to come together, for the Iraqi security forces to come together and for the country to move together toward a brighter future," he said. "We are here to help them make a difference. Whether they seize the opportunity or not is up to them. But we have given them a golden opportunity to move forward in a way that is revolutionary in this part of the world."