WASHINGTON—The nation's top general said Sunday that Iraq isn't slipping into civil war and blamed the violence there on a "relatively small number of individuals" who he said are trying to restore "tyrannical rule."
Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there's been progress in training Iraqi defense forces and disputed accounts, some from conservative commentators, that U.S. efforts in Iraq are failing.
"It is not a great smiley picture nor is it a disaster," Pace said. "What is it is a very tough environment that still has a lot of work to be done but one in which we're making very, very good progress."
Pace disputed a steady stream of CIA assessments, reported last week by Knight Ridder, that the Sunni insurgency has deep roots, is likely to worsen and could lead to civil war. His more optimistic appraisal is expected to set the tone for a meeting this week among President Bush and his top military commanders to assess the war and decide how many U.S. troops should remain in the country.
Pace, who also appeared on Fox News, denied reports in two British newspapers that the United States and Britain were preparing to withdraw troops from Iraq by the spring of 2007.
In Baghdad, efforts to form a new government remain stalled nearly three months after parliamentary elections on Dec. 15, pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to abandon his campaign to remain in power, and sectarian fighting continued on Sunday.
Just after midnight in one western Baghdad neighborhood, residents heard an imam begging for help on their local mosque loudspeaker. He said that he and the mosque were under attack, witnesses said. Some Sunni residents ran toward the mosque carrying weapons while other fired from their yards.
The fighting, which killed three people and wounded seven, continued for a half-hour and was brought under control only when American helicopters arrived, nearby residents said. The attack was broadcast live on local television.
Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was more cautious than Pace was.
"We're not certain yet whether it's civil war, but it could be," Lugar said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "The question really is whether Iraqis want to be Iraqis, as opposed to Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds. "That hasn't been decided. We're on the cusp of a decision."
Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who's abandoned his initial support for the war, said Pace mischaracterized conditions in Iraq.
"We've made no progress at all," he said on "Face the Nation." "There's two participants fighting for survival, fighting for supremacy inside that country and that's my definition of a civil war. I think we're not making progress; we're caught in a civil war."
(Kuhnhenn reported from Washington, Youssef from Baghdad, Iraq.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.