WASHINGTON — The top American commander in the Middle East said Tuesday that continuing violence in Iraq coupled with delays in forming an effective government and viable security forces would prevent any reduction in U.S. troops before spring.
Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, said that six months ago he would have predicted that two U.S. brigades, or about 7,000 troops, could have been withdrawn by now. Deteriorating conditions have scuttled those plans.
"We clearly did not achieve the force levels we had hoped to," Abizaid said. "Why is that? Part of it is that the sectarian violence got worse, and part of it is the development of the security forces."
Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, had told the White House that he hoped to withdraw substantial numbers of troops by this fall. But after carrying out small reductions, the Pentagon increased the number of soldiers and Marines in Iraq to 147,000 -- a jump of about 20,000 since June.
As conditions have worsened for Iraqis, the war has grown increasingly unpopular with Americans, and promises to be the major issue in November's congressional elections.
A lack of progress by Iraq's government is a growing concern for the Bush administration. In a separate briefing Tuesday, the chairmen of a commission evaluating U.S. policy in Iraq said the Baghdad government risked losing the support of its citizens and the American public unless it delivered security and public services within the next three months.
"No one can expect miracles, but the people of Iraq have the right to expect immediate action," said former U.S. Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who is co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group with former Secretary of State James A. Baker III. "The government of Iraq needs to show its own citizens soon, and the citizens of the United States, that it is deserving of continued support."
Abizaid, who was in Washington for meetings with Pentagon officials, defended the recent decision to move troops from other parts of Iraq to Baghdad, saying that stabilizing the capital was "the most important military priority."
On the number of troops in Iraq, Abizaid said, "I think that this level will probably have to be sustained through the spring, then we will reevaluate."
The overall strategy had been to push Iraqi units to the forefront, while moving American units into "overwatch" positions to help as necessary. But as the situation in Baghdad deteriorated, it was clear the U.S. needed to step in, he said.
Abizaid, a Lebanese American who speaks conversational Arabic, said that on a recent visit to Baghdad he spoke with Sunni Arab residents, who told him they would prefer to have U.S. forces, rather than Iraqis, protecting their neighborhoods.
"That is not the effect we want," Abizaid said. "The effect we want is that, 'We welcome the police, we will tolerate our military forces, and we really do not want the American forces here.' "
Casey said last month that Iraqi troops would not be ready for a year to 18 months to assume the bulk of security functions.
Although Abizaid did not rule out new troop deployments in Iraq, he voiced doubts that any large-scale increase in U.S. troop levels would be possible. Asked whether he needed more troops to defeat the insurgency in Sunni-dominated Al Anbar province, he answered, "Where would you like to get them from?
"There are 500,000 people in the American Army. It is important that the American force as a whole be managed in such a manner that it can deal with the military problem in Iraq and Afghanistan and unforeseen problems that may arise, say from Iran."
Abizaid reiterated what has been a frequent observation of his: Too many U.S. troops can be counterproductive, angering the local population and hampering the development of Iraqi military and police units.
The Iraq Study Group was formed this year at the suggestion of Congress. The comments Tuesday by Hamilton and Baker were the first by members of the commission, which has been the subject of speculation within foreign policy circles over whether it would recommend a new course for the U.S. in Iraq.
The Bush administration had high hopes that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who has been in office since May, would move to shore up the government and purge key ministries of corrupt and militia-linked officials. But violence has escalated.
"Time is short, the level of violence is great, the margins for error are narrow," Hamilton said. "The government of Iraq must act."
Baker, who endorsed Hamilton's views, said the commission's recommendations would not be issued until after November's midterm elections to avoid political overtones.
Baker said the group was planning to meet with Syria's foreign minister today on the sidelines of a United Nations gathering in New York, and was seeking a meeting with a senior Iranian representative.
He denied that his appointment, though tacitly approved by the White House, was a signal of a major shift by the Bush administration.