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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

General Says Sunni Area Not Yet Lost

The Marine commander doesn't dispute a gloomy intelligence report on Al Anbar province but insists the U.S. effort there is not in `end state.'

September 13, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell and Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — The top American general in insurgency-ravaged western Iraq acknowledged that his troops were far from pacifying Al Anbar province but insisted that the U.S. fight there was not a lost cause.

"We are not where we intended to be," Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer said in an unusual telephone news briefing from Marine headquarters in Fallouja. But, he added, "we are not in our end state yet."

The general acknowledged that two key objectives -- training Iraqi forces and establishing a functioning local government -- lagged in the vast, strategically vital province.

The general was called in to rebut reports, first published this week in the Washington Post, that a secret Marine intelligence assessment last month had concluded that the prospects for securing Al Anbar were dim. The province covers nearly one-third of Iraq.

Word of the intelligence finding came as the Bush administration was trying to put the best face possible on the war before midterm elections and amid a major offensive in Baghdad deemed crucial to any eventual U.S. success here. The strikingly frank findings by the top Marine intelligence officer in the region, which have not been released publicly, are said to have unsettled U.S. policymakers and top brass at the Pentagon.

Zilmer did not dispute the intelligence appraisal: "I have seen that report, and I do concur with that assessment." But he argued that it had been misinterpreted in media accounts.

"It was not intended to address the positive effects coalition and Iraqi forces have achieved on the security environment over the past years," the general said in a statement released Tuesday.

It was unclear whether the report cited a lack of military strength in the region, where about 30,000 U.S. troops work alongside about 13,000 American-trained Iraqi soldiers and 6,400 Iraqi policemen. But the general, echoing other senior U.S. commanders, insisted that he had sufficient American personnel to do the job in an area that encompasses much of the "Sunni Triangle" and such sometime insurgent strongholds as Fallouja, Ramadi and Haditha.

Some U.S. critics have argued that the Bush administration's plan for Iraq has suffered from a shortage of troops since the American-led invasion in March 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein. But Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top officials have insisted that troop strength is sufficient to defeat the insurgency and bring a stable government to war-torn Iraq.

Al Anbar, with its immense open spaces, palm-fringed Euphrates River valley villages and long borders with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, has been a hotbed of the Sunni Arab-led insurgency since shortly after the invasion.

The region is considered the Sunni heartland, and its residents have been hostile to the U.S.-backed, Shiite-led government that came to power after the fall of Hussein, a Sunni who oppressed the nation's Shiite Muslim majority.

Many Al Anbar residents see U.S. forces as agents of a regime that intends to disenfranchise and marginalize Sunnis while forging alliances with Shiite Iran, Iraq's historical rival.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, has vowed to reach out to Sunnis and form a unity government.

To some critics, the U.S. effort in Al Anbar and elsewhere in Iraq also has suffered from the unduly optimistic forecasts of American commanders. Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, who headed the Marines in Iraq at the time of a concentrated 2004 attack on Fallouja, declared that November that the operation had "broken the back of the insurgency."

In fact, the rebellion has continued in Al Anbar, Baghdad and elsewhere as the death toll for U.S. troops in Iraq has topped 2,600. Zilmer acknowledged Tuesday that Al Qaeda in Iraq and other militant groups in the region were mostly composed of fighters "largely from within Iraq," not foreigners.

Zilmer said his chief mission was to train Iraqi soldiers and police to replace U.S. troops. Despite setbacks, the general said, he envisioned a full Iraqi police contingent and independently operating Iraqi army units to be ready by late spring.

"The Iraqi face on the soldier, the Iraqi face on the police that are here, is very threatening for the insurgency," Zilmer said.

The development of security forces in Al Anbar has long been slowed by desertions, discord within the ranks and a lack of trust among the region's mostly Sunni population.

Insurgents frequently target police and soldiers. Many residents resent the large numbers of Shiite troops deployed there from the largely Shiite south. Local recruiting has often proved difficult because of the insurgency. Widespread illiteracy also has disqualified many military applicants, the general said.

Pentagon officials requested that Zilmer go on a media offensive to correct what the Marine command and some defense officials considered an oversimplified portrait of what was going on in Iraq.

"Clearly there are parts of local governance working better than others," said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.

Whitman suggested that the possible problems in Al Anbar "shouldn't overshadow the fact there is much progress throughout Iraq."

In a House hearing Monday, Eric S. Edelman, the undersecretary of Defense for policy, acknowledged that the insurgency in Al Anbar remained a problem and said the Marine intelligence assessment was important as "a snapshot in time."

The report states that military power alone will not solve Al Anbar's problems, Edelman said.

"I think it's clear to all of us who have been involved in this issue for a while that Anbar has been the epicenter of the insurgency for some time -- that a purely military solution to any insurgency is not possible; it needs a political solution as well," he said.

*

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

julian.barnes@latimes.com

McDonnell reported from Baghdad and Barnes from Washington.

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