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Pentagon Officials Not Panicked Over Recent Iraq Strife

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 1, 2006 – American military commanders in Iraq are calmly assessing the impact of a week's worth of violence and civil strife that has erupted across Iraq since terrorists bombed a Shiite mosque, a senior Pentagon official said here today.

"Our commanders have addressed that issue. The mission remains what it is each and every day," Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters at the Pentagon.

Hundreds of Iraqis have died in sectarian violence that began after terrorists blew off the top of the Golden Mosque, a Shiite religious shrine in the heavily Sunni city of Samarra, Feb. 22. The bombing inflamed Sunni-Shiite discord, with some Shiites accusing Sunnis of masterminding the explosion.

Iraqi soldiers and police immediately took the security lead to confront civil violence across Iraq in the wake of the bombing, while U.S. and coalition forces remain on standby to provide assistance, if requested by Iraqi authorities.

Meanwhile, U.S. and coalition forces remain busy training up new Iraqi soldiers and police that will eventually take up security duties across the country, Whitman said.

"The mission and the focus of what our forces are doing (in Iraq) have not changed this week from last week or last month," Whitman said.

U.S. officials have downplayed the possibility of an Iraqi civil war erupting between Shiites, who make up around 60 percent of the country's population, and Sunnis, who constitute around 35 percent of populace. Sunnis were given preferential treatment during the reign of former dictator Saddam Hussein, while Shiites and Kurds were persecuted.

Senior American military leaders overseeing Iraq operations, such as U.S. Central Command chief Army Gen. John Abizaid and Multinational Force Iraq commander Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., had announced before the bombing that they'd conduct a periodic Iraq U.S. troop-strength assessment this spring. That review, Whitman said, still is slated to be held near the end of this month.

Senior DoD military and civilian leaders intend to stick with a decision made late in 2005 not to deploy two additional U.S. brigades, about 7,000 troops, into Iraq, Whitman said. About 133,000 U.S. troops are now in Iraq.

There are no plans to reduce U.S. force levels in Iraq in reaction to the recent sectarian strife, Whitman said.

"Any spike in violence is unfortunate and is always concerning," Whitman said. "But, we tend to look at these things broadly and over time and base our decisions on trends and what the commanders on the ground feel is an appropriate balance" of U.S. force levels required to accomplish the mission in Iraq.

U.S. commanders in Iraq "take into account all the facts that bear on the future progress of Iraq," Whitman said, to include Iraqi security forces' capabilities, the types and frequency of terrorist activities, and the progress of Iraq's political process.

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