U.S. military official expects progress in Iraq in ག

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid, said in a year-end interview that he believes 2006 will see substantial progress in Iraq because "there are more people trying to hold it together than take it apart."

Abizaid, who has commanded U.S. Central Command (Centcom) for nearly three years, told Knight Ridder on New Year's Eve that the coming year will bring a sea change as "we go from us being in the lead in the counter-insurgency to the Iraqis being in the lead."

"The Iraqi security forces have matured relatively quickly, considering that we started at the zero point," the general said. He added that changing the mindset of an officer corps that was "designed to serve a dictator and serve themselves" to serving the nation will take a generation of work.

To be sure, Abizaid was emphasizing the positive. U.S. leaders are pinning high hopes that an Iraqi Army splintered by ethnic and religious divisions somehow will prove capable of dealing with a violent insurgency fueled by precisely those same divisions.

Knight Ridder has reported in recent days that ethnic-based militias, like those in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, dominate many Iraqi Army units, and that their soldiers express greater loyalty to their militia leaders than to the nascent Iraqi government being formed in Baghdad. The Iraqi Defense Ministry denied those reports.

Abizaid said he thinks the risk of outright civil war in Iraq is low—"I think it's possible, but not probable. I don't see it now. ... I think we would see it coming and I don't see it coming. ... I think we can work our way through 2006 in a way that has a good outcome for Iraq."

Abizaid also said that Iraq has gone through enough politics that "now we are finally at the point where we are going to have a four-year government and that, in and of itself, gives a lot of strength ... "

However, while Iraqis have shown strong commitment to democratic participation—voting in high numbers through three rounds of elections over the past year—they voted primarily along religious and ethnic lines.

Leaders of the minority Sunni Arabs challenged the Dec. 15 elections as rigged, although the United Nations affirmed them as legitimate. Nevertheless, if Sunnis reject the emerging government, that could fuel the insurgency, which rises largely from Sunni provinces.

Abizaid acknowledged that Iraqis practice "bare-knuckled politics and it can be violent at times, but it IS politics in a way people could never have imagined under Saddam Hussein."

Abizaid said his two greatest wishes for 2006 were freedom to maneuver in a touchy situation and patience on the part of the American people.

"It's not a matter of having a withdrawal strategy, it's a matter of having a strategy for success ... a pretty simple equation: It's reliable security forces, a government that is considered legitimate and an economy that is starting to move forward."

He said that Americans should sit with him in the meetings he has with U.S. officers at the brigade level in Iraq. He said they are not afraid of the situation and can conceive of a successful outcome without underestimating the challenges they face.

"I think if we are successful out here—which I do think we will be—it will be because people back home are patient, so that the people who are working on the problem are confident enough to make it work," the general added.

Abizaid said that in the end Iraqis have to take responsibility for their own country, "and the only way is for them to grab hold of the controls." He said problems and progress will differ in different parts of Iraq—easy in some, hard in others.

"The truth of the matter is that this is their country ... What we have to do is give them the tools of sovereignty to begin to shape this country, and the outcome, in my mind, is going to be better than what it was."

Asked if he thought 2006 would be the year that the balance begins to shift from U.S. to Iraqi control, the general said he and the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, as well as U.S. brigade commanders, are all optimistic that will happen.

"There are a lot of `buts' out there but I am optimistic it can happen. And I'm not `cautiously optimistic.' I'm optimistic."