WASHINGTON -- The Coleville, Calif., native nominated to be the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East says the United States faces a long and difficult job in stabilizing Iraq, a markedly more sober assessment than senior Bush administration and Pentagon officials offered before the war.
Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, while holding out the prospect that the U.S. troop presence in Iraq may soon be reduced below its current level of 146,000, warned that "we are certainly in for some difficult days ahead."
"I think the progress that we've made is actually amazing," Abizaid said during his confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. But he also said, "Our military involvement there will be certainly a long one."
Abizaid, 51, has been nominated to succeed Army Gen. Tommy Franks as head of U.S. Central Command, the headquarters for U.S. operations in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. He is currently a deputy Central Command chief.
He is a 1969 graduate of Coleville High School, where he graduated as a top student and three-sport athlete. Colevill is located 50 miles south of Carson City in California.
Abizaid's comments came as the United States is trying to recruit allies to contribute forces in Iraq, and follows a spate of attacks that have killed 17 U.S. troops and six British troops since the beginning of last month.
He wasn't more specific about the likely duration of the U.S. military occupation in Iraq, but even his open-ended comment won praise from committee members. "I think it's far more realistic than perhaps some of the statements that were made immediately following the main conflict about our desire to get in and out quickly," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Several senators said they expect a swift confirmation for Abizaid, a popular officer who speaks Arabic and holds a master's degree from Harvard in Middle Eastern studies.
Despite the recent violence against U.S. and British troops, Abizaid said he was optimistic the United States can soon reduce its force in Iraq. "I think the number can come down once we finish with our current offensive operations, which we'll reevaluate" at the end of June, Abizaid said.
One reason U.S. troops might be withdrawn is the expectation that other countries soon will be contributing forces to relieve them. Over the next three months, the Pentagon expects some 30,000 foreign troops to arrive in Iraq, Abizaid said. There are now 12,000 non-U.S. troops in Iraq, most of them British. Poland, Italy, the Netherlands, Ukraine and other countries have agreed to send troops, Abizaid said.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said Wednesday that his country has accepted "in principle" a U.S. request to send thousands of troops, but first he wants to see a larger role for other Muslim countries or the United Nations in Iraq. Pakistan is wary of the political difficulties of joining the U.S.-led occupation and also would need financial help to pay for the two brigades requested by U.S. and British leaders, Musharraf told Washington Post editors and reporters.
As attacks have intensified on troops commanded by U.S. generals, Musharraf said the situation in Iraq is neither under control nor satisfactory. He said he urged President Bush in their talks on Tuesday to establish an Iraqi government as quickly as possible.
"The sooner we put an Iraqi government in place to be seen by the people as their own government, that they are governing themselves, the better that will be. That will reduce the visibility of foreign forces there," Musharraf said.
Making a similar point, Abizaid testified that "the Iraqis have a great opportunity ahead of them to move forward with us. And what we need to do is be smart enough to figure out how to make sure that we can move forward with them."
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If large numbers of U.S. troops are withdrawn from Iraq soon, almost certainly the first major unit to be pulled out would be the Third Infantry Division, which has had some troops deployed in the Persian Gulf since late last summer. Soldiers in the division, which took Baghdad in early April, had expected to leave in May or early June after being relieved by the 1st Armored Division. But instead of going home, one brigade from the division was redeployed recently to the Sunni heartland west of Baghdad to participate in the crackdown on anti-American fighters there. In the wake of that move, some Third Division troops have been outspoken about their desire to leave Iraq, raising concerns about their morale.
Abizaid indicated that as top U.S. commander in the region, he intends to be forceful in countering groups threatening U.S. forces. "We need to seek contact," he said. "We need to be aggressive, and that's what we're doing in Iraq."
Even as he raised the possibility of reducing the U.S. troop commitment in Iraq, Abizaid hinted at more intensive operations elsewhere in Central Command's area of responsibility, which stretches from East Africa to Central Asia. Specifically, he cited Kenya as a country that has suffered repeated terrorist attacks. "My impression is that there is more work to be done there," he said.