American military commanders in Baghdad and Washington gave a sobering new assessment on Wednesday of the war in Iraq, adding to the mood of anxiety that prompted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to come to Baghdad last weekend to consult with the new government.
In interviews and briefings this week, some of the generals pulled back from recent suggestions, some by the same officers, that positive trends in Iraq could allow a major drawdown in the 138,000 American troops late this year or early in 2006. One officer suggested Wednesday that American military involvement could last “many years.”
Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top American officer in the Middle East, said in a briefing in Washington that one problem was the disappointing progress in developing Iraqi police units cohesive enough to mount an effective challenge to insurgents and allow American forces to begin stepping back from the fighting. General Abizaid, who speaks with President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld regularly, was in Washington this week for a meeting of regional commanders.
In Baghdad, a senior officer said Wednesday in a background briefing that the 21 car bombings in Baghdad so far this month almost matched the total of 25 in all of last year.
[T]the officer said that despite Americans’ recent successes in disrupting insurgent cells, which have resulted in the arrest of 1,100 suspects in Baghdad alone in the past 80 days, the success of American goals in Iraq was not assured.
The generals said the buildup of Iraqi forces has been more disappointing than previously acknowledged, contributing to the absence of any Iraqi forces when a 1,000-member Marine battle group mounted an offensive last week against insurgent strongholds in the northwestern desert, along the border with Syria.
American officers said that 125 insurgents had been killed, with the loss of about 14 Americans, but acknowledged that lack of sufficient troops may have helped many insurgents to flee across the border or back into the interior of Iraq. The border offensive was wrapped up over the weekend, with an air of disappointment that some of wider goals had not been achieved – possibly including the capture of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Islamic militant who is the American forces’ most-wanted man in Iraq.
General Abizaid, whose Central Command headquarters exercises oversight of the war, said the Iraqi police – accounting for 65,000 of the 160,000 Iraqis now trained and equipped in the $5.7 billion American effort to build up security forces – are “behind” in their ability to shoulder a major part of the war effort. He blamed a tendency among Iraqi police to operate as individuals rather than in cohesive units, and said this made them more vulnerable to insurgents’ intimidation.