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Other Arabs Noting Iraq's March to Democracy, Abizaid Says

By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 15, 2006 – Arabs throughout the Middle East are taking note of Iraq's extraordinary march toward democracy, the commander of U.S. Central Command said here yesterday.

"It's interesting when I go around the rest of the Arab world; everybody wants to talk about Iraqi politics," Army Gen. John Abizaid told a congressional subcommittee on military and veterans affairs. "That's interesting because they can talk about Iraqi politics, but can't necessarily talk about politics in their own countries."

Abizaid said he believes the Iraqi people are confident they will be better off in the future than they were under Saddam Hussein. And the fact that Iraqis now have the freedom to debate their country's future is a historic event that is "unprecedented in that part of the world," he said. The general added that this fact does not play well in a world of 24-hour news programming, but will "play well in the great scope of history."

He also said there are fewer insurgent attacks against coalition and Iraqi forces today than there were in mid-2005, partly because fewer foreign fighters are coming across the Syrian border. As Iraqi security forces continue to grow and improve, this trend will continue, he added.

The general said he is more concerned about the growth in sectarian strife than about the insurgency. "My concern is not the growth of the insurgence. My concern is the growth in sectarian tensions and violence," he said. "The next big hurdle for Iraq is to form a national unity government."

When asked about the possibility of permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq, Abizaid said the United States has had a presence in the Middle East for decades and should keep at least a "light footprint" in the region as long as U.S. interests are concerned. "Ultimately it comes down to the free flow of goods and resources on which the prosperity of our own nation and everybody else in the world depend," he said.

Abizaid added that it's also in the United States' best interest to help eliminate extremism in the region. "Clearly it's in our national interest to help the moderates prevail," he said. "Primarily to help people help themselves through this period of extremists vs. moderates."

He said great strides also have been made toward building democracy in Afghanistan. "It's promising to see governance and development," he said. "The leadership and effort that have gone to make Afghanistan move into the modern world is pretty impressive on the Afghan side."

The general did, however, point out that problems still exist in Afghanistan, including the fact that too much of the Afghan economy is based on drug trafficking. And Taliban and al Qaeda remnants still pose a limited threat to the country's stability.

The general emphasized that the United States must not let the people of Iraq or Afghanistan down. "You have to have a spirit of partnership in the region where people know that they can call on you and you will come," he said.

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Gen. John Abizaid, USA

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