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Abizaid Stresses Security, Government in Iraq

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 16, 2006 – More people are trying to hold Iraq together than trying to take it apart, the commander of U.S. Central Command said here today.

Army Gen. John Abizaid said during an interview that he does not believe Iraq is close to a civil war. "I believe a civil war is possible if a bad series of events take place," he said. But the Iraqi government "is starting to come to grips with what it needs to do to build a government of national unity, and the army has held together well," he added.

If Iraqis form a government of national unity soon, the coalition can turn over more battlespace to Iraqi security forces, the general said. "The armed forces are turning into an institution that seems to be turning into a good degree of resiliency," he said. If this continues, he added, more and more responsibility will be turned over to Iraqi security forces.

However, that doesn't "immediately translate" into coalition troop reductions. There is no schedule for U.S. troops reductions in Iraq, he said. Commanders will continue to assess conditions in the country and raise and lower troop levels as needed. The battalion from the ready reserve force now moving into Iraq as part of temporary added security is a part of that.

Still, the "downward trend" for U.S. troop levels in Iraq will probably continue, he said. "We'll have to see what the military situation is on the ground," he said.

"Operation Swarmer," which kicked off today in Samarra, is an example of how U.S. and Iraqi troops are working together to go after insurgent targets, Abizaid said. The operation targets "nodes" of al Qaeda in Iraq and insurgent cells and is a typical counterinsurgency operation, he said.

Iraqis understand they need to work to train local police forces. Army Gen. George Casey, commander of coalition operations in Iraq, has called 2006 "the year of the police," Abizaid said.

Local police are recruited from surrounding towns and cities, just as American police are recruited. But Iraqis have loyalties to tribes, ethnic groups and various regional leaders. Ultimately Iraqis need to work on police loyalties at the local level, he said.

Institutional changes will take time to put in place, and American trainers in the country are working toward that goal, Abizaid said. "You get to the point where the rule of law prevails and the Iraqi police are in the lead," he said. "We're trying to move down that path. And that path has a lot of bumps on it, and it has a lot of ups and a lot of downs. As a matter of priority we are addressing the police issue."

In the three years since the coalition went into Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, Abizaid said, there has been a huge amount of progress in the country. "Three years ago, I can remember being in downtown Baghdad and seeing a M-1 tank in front of what is now the U.S. Embassy shooting down the street at people who were shooting back at it," he said.

Now 240,000 Iraqi security forces are working with a new free government, he said. "When I look at it I see it differently than the people who look and say, 'Look at all this violence.' I see a tremendous amount of progress that has been made," he said. "I don't think any of us had false illusions about how difficult the task would be once we got there."

Abizaid stressed the need for an Iraqi government of national unity. Once that is formed, he said, he believes the country will continue to make progress.

"People who think that building institutions of a country like Iraq that was run by Saddam Hussein for 30 years were going to be fixed easily or quickly just were never correct," he said. "It's clear that it takes a lot of time and energy and effort to do this."

Abizaid said U.S. Central Command is light years ahead of where it was on Sept. 12, 2001, and Americans must remain patient.

"Our military forces are fighting al Qaeda throughout the region where we weren't fighting them before," he said. "We are stabilizing Afghanistan and Iraq in a way that will be good for the region, and the flow of oil and resources is being maintained in a way that is good for the world economy. I think we've been very successful, and I think we need to be patient in the months ahead."

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Gen. John Abizaid, USA

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