A note of optimism from Gen. Abizaid

WASHINGTON—Is the glass in Iraq half empty, or half full? Is that light at the end of the tunnel sunshine, or an oncoming locomotive?

This week Gen. John Abizaid, who commands U.S. Central Command and is in overall charge of the war in Iraq, went before the Senate Armed Services Committee and said he thinks we turned a corner with the success of the Jan. 30 Iraqi national elections.

Abizaid, a Middle East specialist who speaks Arabic, is arguably the smartest person wearing four stars in the Army. He thinks the Iraqi insurgency is now on the wane, the wind taken out of the bad guys' sail by the millions of Iraqis who ignored the death threats and flocked to the polls to vote on their own future.

His remarks to the senators came just one day after the biggest and deadliest car bombing in the two years of war and insurgency in Iraq—a monster blast that killed 125 people in the south-central town of Hillah. Most of the victims were recruits for the Iraq military and security forces who were lined up at a clinic to take their physical exams.

Abizaid says he and other American commanders on the ground believe that by year's end there will be enough trained and equipped Iraqi security forces to take over the active side of the war against the insurgents.

He acknowledged that there are varying estimates of the effectiveness and strength and capabilities of the newly trained Iraqi forces, but said they are growing and getting better at the business of securing their own country.

Abizaid says he likens the process of creating an Iraqi army to how the American colonists built their army from the ground up during the Revolutionary War. "That's a good sort of model to keep in mind when we talk about Iraqi security forces," Abizaid told the Senate committee.

The Central Command boss is either right, and prophetic, or he is considerably off the mark. The months ahead will give us the answer. It is well to keep in mind that the enemy gets a vote on all our plans, predictions and hopes.

Meanwhile, fresh American forces continue to flow into Iraq to replace the 138,000 who are finishing up their 12 months of hard, thankless duty on the ground in Iraq. The overlap that gave ground commanders an extra 15,000 soldiers to cover the election is ending now.

The 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Stewart, Ga., and Fort Benning, Ga., has stepped into the places occupied by the historic 1st Cavalry Division, now heading home to Fort Hood, Texas. The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Carson, Colo., is going in to augment the 3rd Infantry Division.

Once again, the U.S. troops soldiering in Iraq on this rotation will include more than 40 percent National Guard and Army Reserves as the manpower crunch forces the Pentagon to lean heavily on the so-called weekend warriors whose weekends now stretch to 18 months active duty at a time.

This time around there will even be an Army National Guard division, headquarters and troops, operating in Iraq for the first time. The New York State Army Guard's 42nd Division is stepping up to the challenge. The 3rd Infantry Division is lending the 42nd one of its new modular brigades to round out its strength, while the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment is assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division to make up that shortage.

It will be a field test of the Army leadership's new strategy of building combat brigades that are largely self-sufficient—with all the logistics and fire support normally provided by a parent division now built into the brigade itself—and using them in a "plug and play" or "mix and match" mode. Army leaders say this is the way of the future.



Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young