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Generals paint bleak picture for Iraq. All-out civil war possible soon
San Francisco Chronicle
John Koopman, Chronicle Staff Writer
August 4, 2006

Two of America's top generals now say the situation in Iraq could soon turn into a full-fledged civil war, an assessment most experts agree will prove true if the United States doesn't move quickly to provide security, jobs and an effective government in a nation long without any of those.

"We do have the possibility of that devolving into a civil war," Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on Thursday.

"Iraq could move toward civil war," said Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East.

It was a rare use of the term "civil war" by anyone in the top echelons of American government. Other officials, from President Bush on down, have long contended that the term is inaccurate to describe the kind of fighting that has taken place in the past year.

But Pace and Abizaid told the Senate committee that the violence in Baghdad is as bad as they've seen it since the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003. Pace expressed surprise that the situation had unraveled as far as it has.

"They're always surprised," John Pike, a military analyst who runs the Web site Globalsecurity.org, said in an interview.

Pike said Americans tend to perceive war in terms of sports analogies -- that the rules remain the same and that everyone keeps score in the same way.

"In a war, you change the rules all the time," he said. "You change what you're doing in order to gain an advantage over the enemy. In sports, you assume it's a fair fight. But war is unfair. You never want to get into a fair fight."

Pace said the issue of civil war in Iraq is ultimately up to the Iraqis to resolve.

"Shiite and Sunni are going to have to love their children more than they hate each other," he said. "The weight of that must be on the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government."

Anthony Cordesman, a respected military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an interview that it is still too early to determine the outcome in Iraq. Certainly, he said, Iraq could benefit from more U.S. troops on the ground to help with security and stabilization -- but only if they are properly trained and put into positions that will help the Iraqis.

"Boots on the ground is only useful if there are brains above those boots," he said, adding that the U.S. military is not well-prepared for many of its units to conduct counterinsurgency operations.

Acknowledgment that the sectarian violence in Iraq could devolve into civil war could not come at a worse time for the Bush administration. Just weeks ago, Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, had suggested that troop levels, now around 133,000, might be reduced by the end of the year.

Abizaid told the committee that troop reductions still might be possible. "But I think the most important thing to imagine is Baghdad coming under the control of the Iraqi government," he said.

The downbeat testimony at Thursday's hearings brought sharp criticism from committee members, even from supporters of the war. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., described counterinsurgency efforts as "whack-a-mole," in which generals try to curb violence in one area only to see it pop up somewhere else.

"It's very disturbing," said McCain. "And if it's all up to the Iraqi military ... then I wonder why we have to move troops into Baghdad to intervene in what is clearly sectarian violence."

The possibility of civil war in Iraq also led to a sharp exchange between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Clinton told Rumsfeld he was "presiding over a failed policy" in Iraq.

"My goodness," Rumsfeld replied, then restated administration positions. "Our role is to support the government. The government is holding together. The armed forces are holding together," he said.

Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said he still does not consider Iraq to be in a state of civil war. While some analysts have said the sectarian violence was an inevitable result of the war, O'Hanlon said that's an unfair assessment.

"Until 2006, you really didn't see a lot of sectarian violence in Iraq," O'Hanlon said. "There were a lot of predictions, but it didn't happen until the bombing of the mosque in Samarra. You had 2 1/2 years of history affirming that it would not happen, and it was tempting to hope that it would continue."

O'Hanlon said it is still possible to attain some degree of stability in Iraq, but "it's going to be violent for a long time to come."

Pike, from Globalsecurity.org, said the sectarian violence and prospect of civil war is a tactic being used by those who do not want a democratic or stable Iraq. "The thinking is, if you turn it up a little bit, the Americans will turn around and go home," he said.

Pike said the stakes in Iraq remain high -- not just for the future of the region, but the lives of everyday Iraqis.

"We are preventing a genocidal civil war that would make Bosnia look like a day at the beach," he said. "That's something worth fighting for."

Pike said what looks like civil war now has actually been going on for decades, only in a different manner. Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the dominant Sunnis fought and killed both Shiites and Kurds at different times. It just wasn't as equitable before.

"Complex is a good word in connection with Iraq," he said. "Any comment about Iraq that does not include that word is incomplete."

Cordesman said the U.S. and Iraqi governments can do several things to turn the situation around:

-- There needs to be a well-accepted program of reconciliation to bring insurgents, militias and the government together.

-- The government needs to develop a jobs program, to get money into people's pockets and give them a reason not to fight.

-- Security must be strengthened and local government given more responsibility for taking care of their citizens, he said.

O'Hanlon, too, said there are many ways in which the American and Iraqi governments can suppress the violence and improve the lives of Iraqi citizens. He said they need to rehabilitate low-level Baath Party members, many of whom are thought to be members of the insurgency. In addition, an equitable oil-revenue sharing program needs to be put in place so that each faction has a good reason to make it work. As it stands, he said, the Kurds and the Shiites are overly concerned with taking as much of the profits as possible.

Cordesman said one of the major problems facing Iraq is that the U.S. military has never adequately prepared to conduct counterinsurgency warfare. The last war of this type was Vietnam, he said, and none of the current senior leaders in the military were around for that conflict.

"The only thing the commanders had in common after the fall of Saddam Hussein is that they were doing something they hadn't done before," Cordesman said.

The Americans, he said, were too slow to recognize the need for economic development in Iraq. They were hung up on the idea of using American contractors for rebuilding projects, and they didn't understand the need to develop an honest and useful criminal-justice program nationwide, among other things.

"They were too slow to give the Iraqis real security," he said. "There were a lot of things they could have done to make the whole thing viable. Nothing that happened was inevitable."

Contentious term

U.S. officials have long contended that the term "civil war" is inaccurate to describe the kind of fighting that has taken place in Iraq in the past year.

"What we've seen is a serious effort by them to foment civil war, but I don't think they've been successful."

Vice President Dick Cheney, March 19

"We all recognize that there is a violence, that there's sectarian violence. But the way I look at the situation is that the Iraqis took a look and decided not to go to civil war."

President Bush, March 21

"It's very alluring to politicians here to try to make the situation sound like civil war everywhere. No, there are parts of Iraq where life is proceeding with a fair degree of normalcy."

White House spokesman Tony Snow, July 24

"It is not a classic civil war at this stage. ... Is it a high level of sectarian violence? Yes, it is. And are people being killed? Yes. And is it unfortunate? Yes. And is the government doing basically the right things? I think so."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Wednesday

Chronicle news services contributed to this report. E-mail John Koopman at jkoopman@sfchronicle.com.

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