U.S. General Says Iraq Could Slide Into a Civil War

By THOM SHANKER

New York Times

August 4, 2006

WASHINGTON, Aug. 3 — The commander of American forces in the Middle East bluntly warned a Senate committee on Thursday that sectarian violence in Iraq, especially in the capital, Baghdad, had grown so severe that the nation could slide toward civil war.

The commander, Gen. John P. Abizaid, also acknowledged that since the security situation remained so unstable, significant reductions in American forces were unlikely before the end of this year.

Asked by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, whether Iraq risked falling into civil war, General Abizaid replied, “I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I’ve seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war.”

In March, General Abizaid told the Senate Appropriations Committee that sectarian violence in Iraq was replacing the insurgency as the greatest threat to security and stability.

But the tone of the testimony at the Armed Services Committee’s three-and-a-half-hour hearing was strikingly grimmer than the Pentagon’s previous assessments, which have sought to accentuate the positive even as officials acknowledged that Iraq’s government was struggling to assert authority and assure security amid a tide of violence.

The general spoke during a sometimes contentious hearing that drew attention after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld at first declined to testify, but, under criticism from Democrats, decided to attend.

Mr. Rumsfeld, sitting between General Abizaid and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took notes and did not contradict their assessments of the shredded security situation in Iraq. But he emphasized that the war must not be lost.

The harshest criticism of Mr. Rumsfeld and the administration’s war-fighting policy came from Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, who said: “Yes, we hear a lot of happy talk and rosy scenarios, but because of the administration’s strategic blunders and, frankly, the record of incompetence in executing, you are presiding over a failed policy.

“Given your track record, Secretary Rumsfeld, why should we believe your assurances now?”

Mr. Rumsfeld responded with a trademark colloquialism. “My goodness,” he said.

“First of all, it’s true, there is sectarian conflict in Iraq, and there is a loss of life,” he said. “And it’s an unfortunate and tragic thing that that’s taking place. And it is true that there are people who are attempting to prevent that government from being successful. And they are the people who are blowing up buildings and killing innocent men, women and children, and taking off the heads of people on television. And the idea of their prevailing is unacceptable.”

General Pace added his voice to General Abizaid’s somber assessment of the increasing sectarian violence, in an exchange with Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona.

Senator McCain: “You said there’s a possibility of the situation in Iraq evolving into civil war. Is that correct?”

General Pace: “I did say that, yes, sir.”

Senator McCain: “Did you anticipate this situation a year ago?”

General Pace: “No, sir.”

Before the session ended, the two generals made a point to offer relatively upbeat predictions.

While civil war in Iraq is possible, General Pace said, “I do not believe it is probable.”

General Abizaid said: “So the question is, am I optimistic whether or not Iraqi forces, with our support, with the backing of the Iraqi government, can prevent the slide to civil war? My answer is yes, I’m optimistic that that slide can be prevented.”

After a subsequent closed-door session for members of Congress with the defense secretary and the two generals, Senator Clinton for the first time called on President Bush to accept Mr. Rumsfeld’s resignation.

The security situation in Iraq was described in even starker terms by a senior British diplomat in Baghdad, according to British news reports. He contradicted the official stance in London and Washington by concluding that Iraq was closer to civil war and partition than to democracy.

In a confidential telegram seen by a BBC correspondent in Baghdad, the diplomat, William Patey, who finished his tour in Iraq last week, told Prime Minister Tony Blair that “the prospect of a low intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy.”

The situation in Iraq “is not hopeless,” he wrote, but he said that, for the next decade, Iraq would remain “messy and difficult.”

In a news conference on Thursday in London, Mr. Blair responded to questions about the description, saying that Britain was committed to fighting for a “vision of the Middle East based on democracy, liberty and the rule of law.”

“That is what we are doing and however tough it is, we will see it through,” he said, “and actually if you read the whole of the telegram, that is precisely what William is saying.”

American commanders have described the violence in Iraq as being caused variously by a mix of foreign terrorists, Sunni loyalists to Saddam Hussein, Shiite radicals and criminals. After the bombing of a Shiite mosque in February, officers coalesced in their views that sectarian violence — Sunni on Shiite, and Shiite on Sunni — had become the biggest threat to stability in Iraq.

In recent weeks, thousands of additional Iraqi and American troops have been ordered into Baghdad from other areas of Iraq, and an Army brigade has had its 12-month tour extended by 90 days to join the security effort in the capital.

Senator McCain said the orders to move troops from one violence-plagued part of Iraq to another was no better than playing a game of “whack-a-mole.”

The senior American commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., had spoken over recent months of significant reductions in troops this year, if conditions on the ground warranted. With sectarian violence raging, General Abizaid on Thursday sought to tamp down expectations that large numbers of America troops might come home this year.

“Since the time that General Casey made that statement, it’s clear that the operational and the tactical situation in Baghdad is such that it requires additional security forces, both U.S. and Iraqi,” General Abizaid said. “It’s possible to imagine some reductions in forces, but I think the most important thing to imagine is Baghdad coming under the control of the Iraqi government.”

From President Bush on down through his advisers, a more sober assessment of the situation in Iraq has been presented by the administration, with officials stressing the difficulty of counterinsurgency as well as the importance of preventing Iraq from descending into chaos and becoming a haven for terrorists.

Alan Cowell contributed reporting from London for this article.