(Interview on CNN’s "Late Edition" with Wolf Blitzer)
Blitzer: Just a short while ago I spoke to Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of the U.S.-led coalition ground troops, in Iraq.
Blitzer: General Sanchez, thanks so much for joining us. Welcome to LATE EDITION.
Let's get right to a key issue that's of utmost concern, as you well know, to the American public. There seems to be a daily death toll involving U.S. forces in Iraq. How much longer do you believe this is going to continue?
Sanchez: Well, Wolf, as you're well aware, America is involved in a major effort to eliminate terrorism here in Iraq, and we've accomplished that as far as major combat operations are concerned, but we still have a long ways to go in being able to eliminate all of the resistance that exists here.
Sanchez: I think we've got to be able...
Blitzer: I was going to interrupt and say, you say a long way to go.
I'll put some numbers up on the screen. Since the start of the war way back, it seems like a long time ago, in March, 244 U.S. troops killed, 125 of them since the fall of Baghdad; 138 were killed before May 1st, 106 May 1st and afterwards. That's both what they call hostile and non-hostile combat -- non-combat action.
You were going to say it's going to go on for some time.
Sanchez: Well, Wolf, I think we have to understand that we have a multiple-faceted conflict going on here in Iraq. We've got terrorist activity, we've got former regime leadership, we have criminals, and we have some hired assassins that are attacking our soldiers on a daily basis.
The key that we must not lose sight of is that we must win this battle here in Iraq. Otherwise America will find itself taking on these terrorists at home.
Blitzer: How organized are these attacks against U.S. and coalition forces?
Sanchez: Well, the level of organization is something that we've been working on now for some time. We believe that there's local organization. There are some indicators that there may be regional coordination ongoing. The level of sophistication of their attacks have increased over the last 30 days or so.
But I believe that the elimination of the Hussein brothers will go a long ways in beginning to tampen (ph) down the resistance and bringing back some security and stability to Iraq.
Blitzer: Is there any evidence of foreign organization, foreign involvement, non-Iraqi elements involved in these attacks?
Sanchez: Well, we have seen during the major operations, we did see some foreign involvement, we have seen some terrorist activity and religious extremists that have been coming into the country. So I do believe that there is some foreign fighter engagement that is ongoing here against our forces.
Blitzer: Where are these foreigners coming from?
Sanchez: Well, they're coming from various places. This is what I would call a terrorist magnet, where America, being present here in Iraq, creates a target of opportunity, if you will. But this is exactly where we want to fight them. We want to fight them here. We prepared for them, and this will prevent the American people from having to go through their attacks back in the United States.
Blitzer: I guess the more fundamental question is state sponsorship. Is there any evidence that you've seen that countries like Iran, for example, or Syria, for that matter, neighbors of Iraq, are directly sponsoring these kinds of terror attacks against U.S. forces?
Sanchez: No, Wolf, I wouldn't be able to give you any indication of that. I'm not seeing that. I think it's organizations that are focused on just attacking the American forces here in the country.
Blitzer: al Qaeda, would you include that as one of these elements?
Sanchez: Well, those are always possibilities. I think, when you throw that net out there of terrorists and fundamentalists, I think you'd have to include all of those, yes.
Blitzer: There's a story in The Washington Post today, it quotes a young private first class from the 4th Infantry Division as saying this on guard duty, underscoring how difficult the guard duty is. He says, "The American public doesn't realize it's still a war here. But now the people who used to fight us upfront are now fighting us from behind closed doors. We don't know who the enemy is anymore."
How concerned are you about that?
Sanchez: Well, I'm not concerned about that aspect of it. I think we've always accepted the fact that we are in a conflict. We know, the American people knows, that we are continuing to fight here in Iraq.
The face of the enemy has changed a little bit as time has gone on. We're in a low-intensity conflict, and, as I mentioned earlier, it's multi-faceted fighters that are out there, attacking our soldiers on a daily basis.
We're prepared for it. Our soldiers are well-trained. We are a learning organization. Our soldiers are motivated, and we will not fail here.
Blitzer: Let's talk a little bit about the rotation plan that the Pentagon announced this past week, getting ready to help ease some of the pressures, some of the burdens; 156,000 or so U.S. troops over there.
Six-month tours of duty are likely to increase now to a year-long assignment for those troops. And the rotation would presumably really dramatically strain the U.S. Army, three to one rotation, with double the size of the -- would force the Army to maintain -- that kind of presence there would really strain the already-strapped U.S. Army.
Is this going to be required, as far as you can see, for a long time to come?
Sanchez: Well, Wolf, one of the things that I have to do is be able to take into consideration the requirements that we see here in the country as we take into account the enemy activities that are ongoing.
At this point in time, the force levels that are present in Iraq are what we will hold on to for at least the next 60 to 90 days.
At that point in time, we will reassess the conditions that exist here and see if it is possible for us to draw down the forces.
Now, the other aspect that plays into force levels for the U.S. are coalition contributions. We currently have 18 countries that are contributing forces here in Iraq, and we have commitments from others. As those forces come into the country, that will be likely means of us reducing the U.S. force levels.
But it's kind of hard at this point in time to predict a long- term force level.
Blitzer: Several countries are resisting in advance of a yet another U.N. Security Council resolution. They might be willing to participate if there were such a resolution. I know that is an issue out of your hands. You got enough on your hands right now.
Let's talk about the deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein this past week. You suggest that that could reverse the attacks, at least slow down the attacks, long term, against U.S. and coalition forces. Although, since then, they seemed to have stepped up.
Sanchez: Well, actually, what has happened over the course of the last three days, we've had some very effective attacks. The actual numbers have not stepped up. In the long term, in the near mid-term, I believe that we are going to have a decrease.
And the real impact of this is that the Iraqi people will begin to gain confidence that these tyrants are not going to return. That is important, to give them confidence in the fact that Saddam Hussein will not be coming back to brutalize them in the future. That is really where I believe the impact will come, as they come forward and help us out in trying to rout out some of these noncompliant forces.
As an example, we had human intelligence where we went in and conducted a raid on a home. We caught a father and one of his sons who was a fighter. We released the father, and he promised to bring his son in the next day, and sure enough, the next day, at 9:00 in the morning, he brought his son in who was also a Fedayeen fighter. That's the kind of confidence and the kind of hope that we hope will be instilled in the people of Iraq, to begin to turn in some of these fighters.
Blitzer: Do you sense, though, that in the short term there will be some so-called revenge killings against U.S. forces as a result of Uday and Qusay being killed?
Sanchez: Well, in this culture, that's always a possibility. I think what we're going to see is some continued effort for some period of time, as they reorganize and continue to try to bring there the regime that has brutalized these people for 35 years.
That's not going to happen. We're prepared for it, and we acknowledge the possibility of that happening in the coming days.
Blitzer: One Iraqi is quoted in the paper today as saying this, and I'll read it to you, General: "I don't think this is revenge for Uday and Qusay. Because we are an occupied Islamic country, we have to defend our country. And the Americans have also not kept their promises. It's been four months now, and they have done nothing for us. So I think these attacks will continue."
That's a pretty strong statement from this Iraqi.
Sanchez: Well, Wolf, I think you're going to find all kinds of people out there that will make those kinds of statements.
But I'll tell you, in terms of how fast we're improving this country, what we're trying to undo here is 35 years of tyranny, of brutality, of neglected infrastructure, of just sheer neglect across all of the spectrums of this country, and it's not going to be done in two or three months. It's going to take us a while to be able to stand this country back up.
And the progress that we have made across all functional areas of this country is just remarkable. And you know, I could give you some examples. In the area of schools, all the schools are back up and running and they salvaged a year. We've got governing councils all the way from the national level down to individual neighborhoods. Over 90 percent of the governing councils of the major cities are stood up. This is remarkable progress. Public services are back at almost pre- war levels.
My goodness, how we can say that there is no progress is just beyond me. And we've got to be optimistic, and America must clearly understand that the coalition forces and their sons and daughters are making a tremendous contribution to this country.
Blitzer: General, let me just get back to the one point about these attacks against coalition forces. Do you get the impression they're becoming more sophisticated with each day?
Sanchez: Well, there has been an increase in the sophistication, especially in the improvised explosive devices that they are using. And we're working to learn from that and to be able to counter them.
In terms of the complexity of the attacks that they're conducting against us, they are very rudimentary attacks, with every once in a while us seeing an increased complexity in the attacks.
Overall, there is no real complex attacks being conducted, and they are clearly attacks that we can handle easily with the training of our soldiers and the equipment and the motivation of the American soldier and the coalition forces that are here.
Blitzer: Did you feel comfortable, totally comfortable, General -- I suspect the answer is no, but I will ask it anyhow -- with the release of the pictures of the two bodies?
Sanchez: Well, that decision was a tough decision that had to be made in order to be able to convince the Iraqi people that, in fact, these two tyrants were not going to come back. And also, the possibility that we might, in fact, reduce the number of casualties, both Iraqis and Americans, in the long term, was also a factor in this decision.
As far as being uncomfortable, no, I don't believe I was uncomfortable with that decision. I believe it was something that America had to do to be able to prove to the Iraqis that Saddam Hussein will not return.
Blitzer: One Islamic extremist is quoted by the Associated Press as saying this: "The bodies of Uday and Qusay should have been washed, shrouded and buried immediately, but the Americans have no respect for our traditions and doctrine, and they acted in a very unethical manner."
What are you going to do with these two bodies?
Sanchez: Well, the actual disposition of the remains is something that is being considered right now. There are multiple options that are being considered. And we continue to work with the Iraqi people here in Iraq, to determine the appropriate disposition of the bodies as quickly as possible.
Blitzer: So, you think within the next few days we'll know what you're going to do with them?
Sanchez: Well, in due time, we'll be able to provide the ultimate disposition of those bodies.
Blitzer: This weekend, Newsweek came out with a new poll, asked: Is the killing of Saddam Hussein's sons likely to reduce attacks on the U.S. military in Iraq? Thirty-three percent, likely to reduce; 59 percent, probably much not effect; 8 percent, don't know.
How would you have voted in that kind of a poll?
Sanchez: Obviously, as a military commander, I'm not into polls to figure out what the threat is going to do against me.
Like I said before, I'm prepared to counter whatever these fighters decide to do. We will defeat them. And yes, I believe that having taken them out, that will reduce the threat to Iraq in the long term.
Blitzer: The Newsweek poll also asks this question: Do you think Saddam Hussein is probably alive or probably dead? Eighty-two percent said probably alive; 9 percent, probably dead; 9 percent, don't know.
I assume you believe he is alive. There were reports this weekend that you may have gotten within 24 hours of finding him at some location in or around Tikrit. Tell our viewers in the United States and, indeed, around the world, how close are you to capturing, finding Saddam Hussein?
Sanchez: Wolf, the 24-hour story, that's speculation. I'll tell you that we are focused on Saddam Hussein. We've got to make the assumption that he is alive in order for us to prove to the Iraqi people that he is going to be taken care of.
He remains a critical target for us. It is important that we find him, one way or another. And our mission is to kill or capture him, and that's what we're focused on, and we'll accomplish that mission.
Blitzer: When I was in Kuwait, General, on the eve of the war, back in March, U.S. forces went into Iraq, they were ready for weapons of mass destruction. They had the gas masks, the chemical protective equipment, the gear, everything ready.
Since then, General, have you found any hard evidence that Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction ready to be deployed on the eve of the war?
Sanchez: Wolf, that is an issue that is being worked in other agencies that are deployed here in Iraq, and, obviously, that is not a question that I could answer on this interview.
Blitzer: Bottom line, though, have you found any weapons of mass destruction or evidence of weapons-of-mass-destruction programs over these past several months?
Sanchez: Wolf, the bottom line is that I can't answer this question on your program. It is not my area of responsibility, and that is another agency that's involved in that matter.
Blitzer: All right, that's fair enough, General. We'll ask another agency. I assume you're referring to the Central Intelligence Agency, other elements of the U.S. government, is that right?
Sanchez: Well, it's other agencies here in Iraq that are responsible for it.
Blitzer: General, I know you got to go, you got a lot of work to do. I'll let you wrap it up.
Give us your sense, General, where this war -- and I call it a war because your commander, General Abizaid, calls it a war -- right now, where it's going in the short term?
Sanchez: Well, in the short term, we're going to continue to see attacks against our American forces and our coalition forces across the country.
It's also important for us to understand that there are different conditions that exist across Iraq. Up in the north and in the far south, we're probably into stability and support operations, and in the center of the country is where we're facing most of the resistance.
We will continue to face that until we're able to defeat the mid- level Baath Party members, the former regime loyalists, and be able to prove to the Iraqi people that they will not come back into power.
I think as long as we're present here in Iraq, we will always have the threat of Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists coming to try to kill American and coalition soldiers, and that is something that we will have to contend with.
So we'll be here for a while. We must be prepared to take casualties in the coming days, because we are fighting a low-intensity conflict. But I'll tell the American people that their sons and daughters and all of our coalition partners are prepared for this conflict, they are highly motivated, and they are doing a tremendous job in bringing security and stability to this country.
Blitzer: General Sanchez, on that note, I'll thank you very much. Good luck to you. Good luck to all the men and women under your command. Appreciate you joining us here on LATE EDITION.
Sanchez: OK, thank you very much, Wolf. God bless you.
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