DOHA, Qatar—The commander of the war in Iraq says opposition from the Sunni minority is a top concern, and he's tackling it by sitting down with Sunni leaders and speaking to them in their language.
In an exclusive Knight Ridder interview at his forward headquarters, Gen. John P. Abizaid said the coalition must persuade the Sunni Arab minority, about a quarter of the country's 24 million people, to join its plan for a new Iraqi government. The Sunnis were the mainstay of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party regime for decades of brutal oppression.
"Because they were the group that primarily made up the Baathist leadership, there is a tremendous amount of intimidation taking place within that community that prevents people who might otherwise come forward and form a moderate political organization. It's a huge problem," Abizaid said.
"But the truth of the matter is that there is an opportunity for them to participate in the economic and political future of the country and certainly in the security life of the country."
The general, who visits Iraq frequently, has gone out of his way to meet with Sunni tribal sheiks and speak frankly to them in Arabic, a language he speaks well.
"I tell them you need to participate in the future of the country, that there's a lot of information they believe to be true that is not true," Abizaid said. For instance, it's not true that the deBaathification decrees, in which key Baath Party officials are removed from power, "go all the way through nearly every member of the Baath Party," he said. "People who did not participate in crimes against the Iraqi people, people who weren't in the top layers of the Baathist hierarchy certainly have an opportunity to participate in the new government.
"I tell them they need to get on the team. I also tell them if they continue resistance in certain areas, we won't hesitate to use whatever means at our disposal to inflict damage on the people who attack us, so there is no future whatsoever in this."
Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, said that everything he hears from commanders of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan tells him: "We're winning. It isn't easy. It isn't going to happen tomorrow. But we are winning.
"I believe over time, with difficult but workable military, diplomatic and economic actions, we will be successful in both those places," he said.
The general, who earned a master's degree in Middle East studies from Harvard University, is in charge of U.S. military actions in a broad sweep of Middle East, African and South Asian countries.
"It's very important that we not just focus on Iraq and Afghanistan but on the region as a whole, to help people help themselves," Abizaid said, adding, "The vast majority of people in this region don't believe in extremism. They don't believe in terrorism. They want to have a better future and that better future comes from hope for a better life for their children."
Abizaid acknowledged there has been harsh criticism of the performance of the American civilian administrators in the Coalition Provisional Authority.
"You can always ask yourself: Could we be better organized? Could we be more agile in working between the agencies? Could we have had better personnel policies? Well, yeah, but we've never done this sort of thing before."
Much of Iraq is fairly stable, Abizaid said. On any given night, between 10 and 20 incidents occur and most are geographically isolated.
The American military assigned to Iraq are doing their jobs well, but "we should not, any of us, think that military operations are the single solution to the puzzle," he said.
The challenge for every military commander in Iraq and Afghanistan "is whether or not the offensive operation is actually decreasing the problem. (If) for every 10 enemy you kill you bring 20 new recruits to their cause, then essentially you are working against yourself."
As the American forces conduct major offensives in the Sunni Triangle northwest of Baghdad, Abizaid said, "There needs to be corresponding political activity taking place that reaches out (and) says: What is it that we need to do to help you come toward a more moderate activity that doesn't fuel violence and doesn't support the folks who ran things in the bad old days?"
The biggest issue now, he said, is that the coalition will hand over civil power of Iraq to an interim authority by July 1, even as American soldiers who have been in Iraq for one-year tours start to return home and are replaced by fresh troops. Soldiers in Afghanistan also will be rotating.
"We have a responsibility to rest our troops, get them home and give them a break," Abizaid said, adding that the rotation would be staggered over a four-month period beginning in February.
"The force rotation inevitably brings about a period of green-troop syndrome. But our joint force is so good and so professional. It's the young lieutenants and captains and sergeants that really win this kind of counterinsurgency fight (and) they know what they're doing.