The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East says he wants to accelerate the handover of security responsibility in Iraq to the country's new security forces this year. In an interview with reporters traveling with him in Iraq in recent days, the general said that is the only way for Iraqis to take control of their future.
In the interview with reporters from USA Today and Knight Ridder newspapers, General John Abizaid said his trainers are sometimes reluctant to hand over responsibility to their Iraqi counterparts. And the general acknowledged there are risks associated with putting relatively inexperienced Iraqi officers and soldiers in charge of security in their areas. But he said the American trainers have to accept that Iraq belongs to the Iraqis, and that once they are given what he called "the tools of sovereignty" they must be allowed to "grab hold of the controls."
General Abizaid said the American trainers know which Iraqi units are ready, and that "when bad things happen [you] dust yourself off, get back in there and fix it." He said this year the lead responsibility for security should be transferred from the U.S. military to the Iraqi military, but he noted that some parts of the country will be ready sooner than others.
Still, General Abizaid said there are many challenges ahead, including the development of an Iraqi officer corps that is loyal to the state, rather than to any one politician as was true in the past. He also acknowledged that Iraq's new political system has been violent, and may continue to be so. But the general said that does not mean the country is on the verge of civil war.
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita told reporters Tuesday that U.S. trainers in Iraq tend to want the Iraqi units to reach a very high standard before being given full responsibility for operations. He says General Abizaid wants to find a balance point at which the Iraqi units are well prepared, but also are allowed to take control as they feel they are ready.
"The balance has always been, 'when does an individual unit feel like it's prepared to step out and do its job?' And increasingly Iraqi units feel that way," he said. "I think General Abizaid feels the Iraqi units have a lot of self-confidence, and we need to be o.k.with that. How quickly can we bring the Iraqi security forces to a point where they can take over responsibility, but do it in a way that's measured sufficiently so that we're helping set them up for success? I think General Abizaid has consistently been of the view that we should be leaning forward on that."
In the year-end interview, General Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces from Afghanistan to East Africa, also called on the American people to be more patient about progress in Iraq. He said most Americans do not have a realistic understanding of both the progress and the challenges in Iraq. And he indicated that pressure from home makes it more difficult for his troops to do the hard job of providing security in Iraq, training the Iraqi military and police forces, and handing over responsibility to them as they become ready.
General Abizaid said some Americans want U.S. troops out of Iraq because "it's too hard, it's too hard to deal with and it costs an awful lot." But he said the U.S. effort in Iraq will be successful if Iraqi security forces are developed properly, the new government is accepted by the people and the economy continues to improve.
In all that, the general indicated, 2006 will be a crucial year. And General Abizaid told the reporters he is optimistic, particularly on the military aspects, and he added, "I'm not 'cautiously optimistic.' I'm optimistic."