WASHINGTON—Two senior U.S. generals told Congress on Thursday that growing sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims threatens to plunge Iraq into civil war.
"I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war," said Gen. John Abizaid, the chief of U.S. Central Command. The top American military officer in the Middle East was testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff and thus the top general at the Pentagon, agreed with the assessment.
"I believe that we do have the possibility of that devolving to a civil war, but that does not have to be a fact," Pace said.
Their frank remarks came hours after it was reported that the outgoing British ambassador to Iraq, William Patey, warned in a confidential memo that Iraq is descending toward civil war and is likely to divide along ethnic and religious lines.
The two generals acknowledged that there was little that U.S. troops could do to quell the violence if Iraqi security forces can't do it on their own.
"We can provide support, we can help provide security, but they must now decide about their sectarian violence," Pace said. "Shia and Sunni are going to have to love their children more than they hate each other."
"Iraqi armed forces know where the problem's coming from, they know how to deal with the problem, they can recognize it easier than our troops can," he said.
Their statements were a sharp departure from previous Pentagon assessments, which have minimized the prospects that Iraq could split apart amid increasing violence.
Asked about the generals invoking the specter of "civil war," White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said aboard Air Force One: "I don't think the president is going to quibble with his generals on their characterizations."
Much of the violence has erupted in Baghdad, where revenge attacks between Shiites and Sunnis take place daily. Two weeks ago the United Nations reported that 14,000 Iraqis are thought to have been killed this year, 3,000 in June alone.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld last week approved extending the deployment of the Army's 172nd Stryker Brigade for four months to help combat the chaos. The troops will shift to Baghdad from Mosul, a city in northern Iraq.
Abizaid said the most important point to remember is that "the (Iraqi) army is holding together and that the (Iraqi) government is committed to bringing the sectarian violence under control."
But while Iraqi security forces have steadily increased—there are about 275,000 trained and equipped now—they haven't been able to rein in death squads. The police in particular have been heavily infiltrated by militia groups, such as the Mahdi Army of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iranian-backed Badr Organization.
A number of senators expressed growing dissatisfaction Thursday with the situation in Iraq. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., called for the Pentagon to set a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces.
"The Iraqi security forces are standing up. We need to begin to stand down, with a phased redeployment, starting by the end of this year," Levin said. "It's time for the Iraqis to take greater responsibility for the security of their own country. It's time to do what the president repeatedly said he would do."
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., asked how much more U.S. forces could be expected to do.
"How much more can we demand of them?" Kennedy asked. "And why isn't this demand for political accommodation? Why isn't that the front and center so that we can ... start to bring our Americans home with honor?"
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he believes that the United States must win in Iraq, because "the consequences of failure would be catastrophic." However, he suggested that there weren't enough U.S. forces there to put down insurgents and militias. He noted that the 172nd Stryker Brigade would have to move from Mosul to Baghdad.
"What I worry about is we're playing a game of whack-a-mole here," McCain said.
Rumsfeld, who also testified, cautioned against withdrawing from Iraq too early, saying it would only embolden extremists and lead to an eventual U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East.
"We can persevere in Iraq or we can withdraw prematurely, until they force us to make a stand nearer home," Rumsfeld said. He said the violence ultimately would require a political solution and a national reconciliation effort such as the one already proposed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.