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Iraq seen as long-term venture

Fallon, nominated as the new head of U.S. forces in the region, tells a Senate panel that democracy is far off.

January 31, 2007|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush's choice to be the new military commander in the Middle East warned Tuesday that the U.S. may have to lower its expectations for Iraq, saying the country's transition into a peaceful democracy may be "a long time coming."

Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, who was picked this month by Bush to replace retiring Army Gen. John P. Abizaid as head of U.S. Central Command, said security and stability must come first in Iraq -- meaning many of the political reforms once viewed as essential to the administration's democratization goals may need to be postponed.

"Going back to 2003, we had hundreds of good ideas of things that we would like to see in Iraq that are more reflective of the kind of society and process that we enjoy here," Fallon said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We probably erred in our assessment of the ability of these people to take on all these tasks at the same time."

Fallon's pessimistic view follows similar assessments by other administration and military leaders in recent months, a shift that has come as violence in Baghdad has raged for nearly a year. Fallon pointedly refused to answer questions on the administration's buildup of forces in Iraq, however, saying he could not assess the number of troops needed for the mission until he received more detailed information about the plan.

Instead, Fallon appeared to defer to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus -- the new four-star commander in Iraq and an advocate of the troop increase -- on much of the new war strategy. Such a stance would have him playing a much different role than his predecessor, Abizaid, who was intimately involved in the details of the Iraq campaign, since even before the 2003 invasion.

Fallon, who would become the first naval officer to command the headquarters responsible for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, told the committee he would seek more help from other countries in the region for securing and rebuilding Iraq.

"I see an awful lot of sitting and watching by [countries in] the neighborhood," Fallon said. "It's high time that changed."

In his previous job, head of U.S. Pacific Command, Fallon gained a reputation for pushing to engage with occasionally antagonistic governments in the region, particularly China, at times defying the Bush administration's heated rhetoric concerning Beijing.

His reputation prompted several senators to ask whether he advocated diplomatic engagement with Iran, a move already rejected by the White House. Although Fallon repeatedly said Iran was not being helpful in Iraq, he said the White House had not told him to avoid such talks and would not exclude the possibility of direct discussions.

"The extent that we can understand better the thoughts and actions of others reduces substantially, in my experience, the danger of miscalculation, and so I strongly endorse that approach," Fallon said, speaking generally of dialogue with Middle Eastern countries.

At another Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, John D. Negroponte, nominee to be deputy secretary of State, said he did not believe the U.S. was drifting toward military confrontation with Iran.

"I think we would strongly prefer that the issues between us be resolved peacefully," he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

He added, however, that the administration does not believe Iranian actions such as supporting Shiite extremists in Iraq "should go unchallenged."

Fallon's view that security must be the first priority in Iraq differs from some administration critics, who have argued that the Iraqi government must bring about a political reconciliation between opposing factions before stability is possible.

Former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday that making the security of Baghdad a precondition for other goals was a mistake.

"You've got to deal with these problems comprehensively, and if you're focused solely on the question of security, you're not going to get there," Hamilton said. "Because you cannot isolate that security from the other aspects."

"The study group believes the training mission should be the primary mission," Baker said.

Another critical assessment came Tuesday from the Washington-based Brookings Institution, which issued a bleak report suggesting it may be too late to stop Iraq's descent into civil war and instead called on policymakers to turn their attention to keeping the violence from spilling over into neighboring countries.

The 140-page report, based on a historical analysis of recent sectarian conflicts and issued this week, was co-authored by Middle East expert Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst and National Security Council official. Pollack initially favored the invasion of Iraq, but has since criticized the Bush administration's handling of the war.

The Brookings report advocates policies aimed at containing an all-out civil war. Previous conflicts, the authors argue, have shown that failure to prevent "spillover" can lead to the growth of terrorist groups, radicalization of people in surrounding countries and pressures for foreign intervention.

"The warnings of history suggest that we, too, are simply repeating the same mistakes of those caught up in past civil wars," the report states. "Not planning now for containing the Iraqi civil war could lead its devastation to become even greater, engulfing not only Iraq but also much of the surrounding region and gravely threatening U.S. interests."

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

Times staff writers Julian E. Barnes, Paul Richter, Faye Fiore and Adam Schreck contributed to this report.

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