WASHINGTON — The top U.S. general in the Middle East said Tuesday that the failure of insurgents to prevent millions of Iraqis from voting in January showed that the violent guerrilla movement was fizzling.
Citing estimates from field commanders, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, told a Senate committee that approximately 3,500 insurgents were involved in planning and executing the roughly 300 attacks on election day, Jan. 30.
"They threw their whole force at us, we think, and yet they were unable to disrupt the elections because people wanted to vote," Abizaid said before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The general's comments came a day after one of the most lethal attacks by insurgents since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003. A suicide car bombing in the south-central town of Hillah killed more than 100 people, including dozens of recruits for Iraq's fledgling security forces.
After the Senate hearing, a military official said that commanders arrived at the 3,500 figure by estimating both the insurgent "trigger pullers" and the support cells required to carry out the election day attacks. The number of attacks that day was five times normal, and at least 44 people died in suicide bombings and mortar strikes.
The general's comments about the state of Iraq's insurgency were more optimistic than those offered two weeks ago by CIA Director Porter J. Goss and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, who spoke before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
At that hearing, Jacoby said the insurgency had grown "in size and complexity" over the previous year. He said attacks had increased from about 25 a day to more than 60.
Some Pentagon officials also have speculated that insurgent leaders may have decided to bench most of their forces Jan. 30 to minimize the risk of capture by thousands of U.S.-led and Iraqi troops walking the streets and manning polling stations. A three-day holiday was declared, and the country was under virtual lockdown, with private vehicle traffic prohibited, borders sealed and the Baghdad airport closed.
Abizaid did not put a firm estimate on the size of Iraq's insurgency, but senior U.S. officials have distanced themselves from a recent Iraqi intelligence report that estimated 40,000 hard-core insurgents and 200,000 part-time fighters had taken up arms.
Abizaid also said U.S. commanders hoped that by year's end, enough Iraqi forces would be trained to take over counterinsurgency missions in most of Iraq.
Senators pressed the general to explain the varying estimates given by senior U.S. officials of the number of Iraqi soldiers trained and equipped to take on insurgents.
According to the U.S. military command in Baghdad, 139,000 Iraqi troops and policemen have gone through a revamped U.S. training program. But some Pentagon documents have reflected different numbers and capabilities, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said.
One document cited by Levin indicates that 89 of 90 Iraqi battalions "are lightly equipped and armed and have very little mobility and sustainment capabilities."
Abizaid said Iraqi forces had steadily improved and grown. He likened the process of building an Iraqi army to the U.S. experience of creating an army from scratch during the Revolutionary War.
"That's a good sort of model to keep in mind when we talk about Iraqi security forces," the general said. "They keep getting better and better."