The commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East told Congress Thursday that militants are trying to push Iraq into civil war, but he also said he believes the Iraqi government and military can prevent that if they have strong international support.
During a lengthy and sometimes heated discussion between senior defense department officials and members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, General John Abizaid painted a stark picture of the situation in Baghdad.
"I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war," he said. "Al-Qaida terrorists, insurgents and Shia' militia militants compete to plunge the country into civil war. It is a decisive time in Baghdad and it requires decisive Iraqi action with our clear support."
General Abizaid says there are sectarian divisions that cannot be ignored. But he said the new Iraqi government and its security forces are committed to getting the situation under control.
"The most important point that we've got to keep in mind is that the army is holding together and that the government is committed to bringing the sectarian violence under control," he added. "So the question is, 'Am I optimistic whether or not Iraqi forces, with our support, with the backing of the Iraqi government can prevent the slide to civil war?' My answer is yes I'm optimistic that that slide can be prevented."
In a memo made public by the BBC, the outgoing British Ambassador to Iraq drew the opposite conclusion, telling Prime Minister Tony Blair that a "low intensity civil war" is likely, and predicting that Iraq will break up along ethnic lines.
General Abizaid told the senate committee the new Iraqi government knows what must be done, and is working on the problems. He said the priorities are to bring Baghdad under control, disband illegal militias, bring death squad leaders to justice and proceed with the national reconciliation process.
At the same hearing, several senators and senior officials said the ultimate solutions to the violence in Iraq will be social and political, rather than military, and that Iraqis themselves must find the solutions. The top U.S. military officer, General Peter Pace, said now is a decisive time for the Iraqi people to make clear to the militants that they want the violence to end so they can build a democratic future.
"We need the Iraqi people to seize this moment," he said. "We provided security for them. Their armed forces are providing security for them, and their armed forces are dying for them. They need to decide that this is their moment."
The Senate hearing featured some partisan criticism of administration policy in Iraq, and some partisan support as well. But some senators from President Bush's Republican Party indicated they have increasing concerns about the future of the U.S. commitment in Iraq, because of the increase in violence. The powerful committee chairman, Senator John Warner, said the administration might have to ask the congress for additional authorizations if Iraq does descend into civil war.
General Abizaid, the Middle East regional commander, said he has rarely seen the region as "unsettled and volatile" as it is now in his more than 30-year career. But he argued for defeating the extremists now, in Iraq, saying halfway measures in the past made them stronger and that the international community cannot afford to let that happen again.
"This is a very serious problem that requires the application of our national might and will, along with that of the international community, to face down the extremist threat, whether it's sponsored by Iran or whether it comes from al-Qaida, or we will fight one of the biggest wars we've ever fought," he said.
General Abizaid is among the officials who approved the slight increase in U.S. troop strength in Iraq last week. He said some reduction by the end of the year is possible, but it is more important to help the Iraqi government and military get the situation in Baghdad under control.