Abizaid optimistic about Iraq's future

BAGHDAD, Iraq—What follows is a transcript of an interview on Dec. 31 with Gen. John Abizaid, commanding general of U.S. Central Command at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Q: You've been doing this since April 2003. What's the arc of your observations and expectations of where we are and where you thought we would be?

A: I don't know how I would answer the question of where I thought we would be looking forward from 2003, but I think that the course we are on now—where go from us being in the lead in the counterinsurgency to the Iraqis being in the lead in counterinsurgency in 2006—I think that's very, very important.

To be honest with you, in April of 2003, I think I would have said that we would have been able to do that sooner. How much sooner I'm not sure. The good news is that in 2006 we are doing it. I think that this is a good indication that Iraqi forces have matured, that there has been a lot of activity ...

You know I don't think it's easy to go back and say ... in November 1941 what would we have thought the Japanese were going to do next. Well, in April of 2003, the conditions were a lot different; we didn't understand the battle space, especially the political dynamics. Now we have been through an awful lot of politics. We've been through Jay Garner, Paul Bremer, Allawi, Jaafari, and 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 to the politics of it.

The Iraqi security forces have matured relatively quickly, considering that we started at the zero point. I think all of us are satisfied that there's been good progress there.

On the other hand, there's a lot of work to be done, and the notion of changing attitudes within the security services, where you take an officer corps that grew up in a way that was designed to serve a dictator and serve themselves, and having to change it to serve the state, is a generation's worth of work. That will require a lot of work on the Iraqis' part and on our part.

The other thing I'd say about where we are is that the first time I flew in here, I can remember looking down and there were very few cars on the streets, and it wasn't that there was fighting going on—it was just there were very few cars. There weren't shops full of goods and there weren't satellite dishes on top of roofs.

Now you come in and there are refrigerators overflowing the sidewalks, traffic jams and society is much different.

There's politics which takes place—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.

So if the politics moves forward, and we get a government of national unity that people consider legitimate, and the security forces keep developing, and people will start investing in this country, then Iraq will emerge as a powerful and prosperous state at the head of the Arabian Gulf.

So as I look forward, the question is: Is it all workable? And the answer is yes, there are more people trying to hold it together than take it apart.

Now there's another school of thought that you frequently see in the media, that there are more people trying to take it apart than hold it together. But the amount of people attacking it is very small compared to those who are trying to hold it together.

If you consider that the 10.7 million people who voted are trying to hold it together and you consider that there are 10,000 to 20,000 at the most actively trying to tear it apart, then I consider the prospect that this thing can be successful very high.

Q: You said there were two things you wanted in 2006: Freedom of maneuver and patience. Would you develop that thought a bit more?

A: The way things are developing here in Iraq, I want freedom of maneuver not so much militarily. There is the way people in the states talk about leaving Iraq, as if they just want to leave because it's too hard; it's too hard to deal with and it costs an awful lot.

My view is it's not a matter of having a withdrawal strategy it's a matter of having a strategy for success, as President Bush has articulated. And the strategy for success is a pretty simple equation: It's reliable security forces, a government that is considered legitimate and an economy that is starting to move forward.

I think in order to get there, people in the United States should sit with me with the officers in the brigade meetings who are not afraid of the situation they are in; who can all conceive of there being a good outcome, but on the other hand don't underestimate the challenges ahead.

So, 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.

Q: One of topics you talked about today was having a presence here to kind of put the damper on the violence, but also starting to pull back so the Iraqis begin to take over. What do you look for that allows you to measure when you should pull back, and do you think U.S. units take a risk in pulling back; are they hesitant to pull back?

A: There's always a risk in taking a chance on the people that you've come to help. There's also a risk of condescension, and you say `they're not ready, they're not ready.' The truth of the matter is that this is their country, and it's going to be 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 it is going to be better than what it was.

So if you notice the debate in Iraq, it has a lot to do with us being responsible for everything that goes wrong. Truth of the matter is, we may be responsible for some of what's gone wrong, but we're also responsible for a lot that's gone right.

They have to accept responsibility for their country and the only way is for them to grab hold of the controls. It will be different from place to place. In some places government is strong and the army units are good and the ethnic balance.

You can look for example at places down in the south and up in the Kurdish north where things are going relatively well. But you can look at Kirkuk and you can see by the meetings we had today that Kirkuk is going to be a hard job, because there just so many conflicting interests there.

We want to look at Iraq as if it's all the same and that progress is going to be measured all the same on some sort of arithmetic function, but that's just not how things work. They don't work that way in the United States either. Some places are more advanced than others; some places have more crime than others. And that's how things are here too.

My view is, where you can take risks, you'll know it, because we have units there and we have to give our commanders there the confidence to take risks.

The other thing that makes it hard is because in our cultural life we want everything to happen now; we have this five-second sound-bite notion of the way the world is, and you describe the world as it is now.

You've got to look at Iraq realistically, and you've got to be willing to say, I'm going to take risks here, and some bad things are going to happen, and then when bad things happen, dust yourself off, get back in there and fix it.

We're in absolutely NO danger of being thrown into the sea; we are making Iraq work.

Q: Are you confident that 2006 will be when the balance shifts?

A: I'm optimistic; Gen. George Casey's optimistic; all of our brigade commanders are optimistic that in 2006 we will start making the transition toward more and more Iraqi control. There are a lot of "buts" out there, but I am optimistic it can happen. And I'm not `cautiously optimistic;' I'm optimistic.

Q: You asked your commanders about possibility of civil war. Can you discuss that risk factor?

A: I think that the risk of civil war is low; I think it's possible but not probable. I think a whole series of bad things have to happen in order for that to move.

When you talk to Iraqis and you talk to Americans who have been involved in this for a good while, they believe there are more people trying to keep it together than pull it apart.

I obviously think the mood is better this year than last year, because we are on the verge of a four-year government. On the other hand, I think there will be a lot of talk about how bad things are, how things are falling apart, and it's all going to be associated with politics and the new government.

I think there's going to be some of the hardest bare-knuckle politics ever in the Arab world _they play rough over here, and that can loop toward violence. But violence does not necessarily mean civil war. I don't see it now. I think we would see it coming and I don't see it coming.

But things can change violently in this part of the world given all the outside factors. But, look, I'm optimistic. We've got good people working on the problem, and I am optimistic but realistic. I think we can work our way through 2006 in a way that has a good outcome for Iraq.