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U.S. Army Brass Tries to Restore Shine to Iraq War

Commanders of Mideast forces take to the airwaves in an effort to mollify public doubts. They call the fight key to combating global terror.

October 03, 2005|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Amid growing concern in Congress and sagging public support, two Army generals made their case for the Iraq war to the American people Sunday, insisting that progress was being made but adding that victory could take years.

Appearing separately on four current-events television programs, Gen. John P. Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, and Gen. George W. Casey, the commander of American forces in Iraq, sketched a picture of a steadily improving Iraqi military that has begun to take on more of the fighting against the insurgency.

Both also pointed to strong voter registration in advance of Iraq's constitutional referendum this month, calling it a sign that most Iraqis wanted to take part in the American-backed political process rather than the armed revolt. But Casey acknowledged that Sunni Arab participation was motivated mainly by a desire to defeat the constitution and that a failure to do so could fuel the insurgency.

"It could happen," Casey said on ABC's "This Week."

The generals said it was important that Americans not turn against the war and that defeat would be a catastrophic setback in the larger struggle against terrorism.

Their comments were aimed at steadying public support for U.S. policy in Iraq amid mounting troop casualties and as the insurgency, which they said may involve as many as 20,000 fighters, showed few signs of weakening. Associated Press reported that as of Saturday, at least 1,935 American troops had died in Iraq.

Expressing concern about recent opinion polls, one of which showed nearly two-thirds of Americans questioned favoring a complete or partial pullout of American forces, Casey made his case for public backing.

"I think it's important for the American people to understand that we should not be afraid of this fight," he said on CNN's "Late Edition." "This is a tough fight. [Iraq's] armed forces are committed to this, the Iraqis are committed to this.... This is worth it, and we have a plan and a strategy in place that will allow us and our Iraqi colleagues to prevail."

On NBC's "Meet the Press," Abizaid said the doubts and frustration that permeated much of the questioning the generals faced during Thursday's high-profile hearing before the House and Senate armed services committees was not matched by his commanders close to battle.

"I go up on [Capitol] Hill and everybody's wringing their hands and everybody's worried, but when I talk to my commanders in the field, when I talk to Iraqi commanders in the field, people are confident," Abizaid said. "They don't think it's going to be easy. They know that there's a lot of fighting ahead, but they're confident that they're moving in a good direction."

Appearing on CBS' "Face the Nation," Abizaid said that although the insurgency was becoming more sophisticated, it was still no match for American forces militarily.

"We have never lost a single platoon-sized engagement in four years of combat in the Middle East," he said. "It's true that the enemy is capable of developing things that can do us damage, but ultimately they can't beat us, and they know it."

But neither general elaborated on one of the biggest causes of congressional concern: the revelation that, of the 100-plus Iraqi army battalions that have completed training, the number capable of effective combat on their own, independent of U.S. forces, had slipped from three to one in recent months.

Both generals emphasized that they were seeing broader, across-the-board advances in the combat readiness of Iraq's forces. At one point, Abizaid told NBC, "It is a difficult thing to start talking about one battalion here or two battalions there or three battalions in another place."

The issue of readiness is crucial to the U.S. military strategy, which calls for Iraqis to gradually shoulder more of the burden of fighting as the United States draws down its forces.

Abizaid stressed that victory in Iraq required a long-term commitment.

"I think those of us who have been fighting this war have said time and time again that it's a long war," he told NBC.

Abizaid distanced himself and his commanders from Vice President Dick Cheney's widely reported statement in May that the guerrilla movement in Iraq was "in [its] last throes."

"It is certainly alive and well, and I don't think any of us that are military people have ever said anything other than the fact that we've got fighting on our hands, especially as we go through this political process," he said.

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