WORLD / Middle East

Pentagon generals warn of Iraq civil war
Updated: 2006-08-04 08:49

WASHINGTON - Two top Pentagon commanders said Thursday that spiraling violence in Baghdad could propel Iraq into outright civil war, using a politically loaded term that the Bush administration has long avoided.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gestures during a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington August 2, 2006. [Reuters]

The generals said they believe a full-scale civil war is unlikely. Even so, their comments to Congress cast the war in more somber hues than the administration usually uses, and further dampened lawmakers' hopes that troops would begin returning home in substantial numbers from the widely unpopular war in time for this fall's elections.

"I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I have seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war," Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the senators, "We do have the possibility of that devolving into civil war."

White House press secretary Tony Snow, flying with President Bush to Texas aboard Air Force One, said the generals had "reiterated something we've talked about on a number of occasions, which is the importance of securing Baghdad, which is why ... you're going to see more and more of a troop presence in Baghdad. ... Obviously, sectarian violence is a concern."

Asked specifically about the generals' comments about a civil war, Snow said, "OK, well, I don't think the president is going to quibble with his generals on their characterizations."

Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have steadfastly refused to call the situation in Iraq a civil war, although Rumsfeld acknowledged at a news conference Wednesday that the violence was increasing.

Asked whether the United States would continue to have a military mission in Iraq if civil war broke out, Rumsfeld declined to respond directly, saying he didn't want to give the impression he presumed there would be a civil war. He said the question must ultimately be handled by the Iraqis.

"Our role is to support the government. The government is holding together. The armed forces are holding together," Rumsfeld said at the Senate hearing Thursday.

There are currently about 133,000 U.S. forces in Iraq. The Pentagon has recently decided to extend the deployment of some 3,500 troops and send them into Baghdad, along with Iraqi forces, to bolster security.

Last year, Army Gen. George Casey, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, expressed hopes of significant troop cuts this year, comments Abizaid seemed to temper on Thursday.

"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," Abizaid said.

Abizaid raised the specter of a rise in U.S. casualties, saying, "I think it's possible that in the period ahead of us in Baghdad that we'll take increased casualties - that's possible."

Many voters have tired of the 3-year-old war, which has cost more than 2,500 U.S. lives and more than $250 billion dollars.
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