Generals Say Iraq War Strategy Is Working

The Associated Press
Thursday, September 29, 2005; 8:53 PM

WASHINGTON -- Only one Iraqi army battalion seems capable of fighting without U.S. help, a senior American general told Congress on Thursday, leaving some lawmakers worried about worsening conditions there despite his assurances that the overall military strategy is working.

Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the number of Iraqi army battalions rated by U.S. officers as capable of fighting without U.S. help had dropped from three to one.

This prompted expressions of concern by Democrats and Republicans alike, at a time when many lawmakers and members of the public are growing restless about the U.S. involvement in Iraq and the nearly 2,000 American troops who have died there.

"That contributes to a loss of public confidence in how the war is going," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said of Casey's remarks. "It doesn't feel like progress when we hear today that there is only one Iraqi battalion fully capable."

The Iraqi troop ratings are important because the Pentagon has built its Iraq strategy on the expectation that it can start bringing American troops home as the Iraqis gradually take the lead in the fight against the insurgency.

Casey said 75 percent of the U.S.-trained Iraqi army was at least capable of engaging in combat, albeit with U.S. troops providing support in most cases. He declined to give an exact breakdown of Iraqi combat readiness, which he said was classified as secret, but he said more than 30 battalions are judged capable of taking the lead in an offensive, with U.S. support. Only one can operate entirely on its own.

Casey did not explain why the number had dropped from three in June to one today. But he said the Iraqi army is getting stronger, even though the Ministry of Defense that manages the army lacks expertise and stability. He said Iraqi soldiers performed well in recent battles for control of the city of Tal Afar.

Underscoring the continued U.S. presence in Iraq, the House on Thursday passed, 348-65, a bill funding Pentagon operations at roughly current levels as part of a stopgap funding bill for federal agencies whose budgets will not have passed by Saturday, the start of the 2006 fiscal year. The Senate was expected to pass the measure later by Friday.

The effort to train Iraqi troops and police has progressed far slower than once expected, and Casey conceded it has been hurt by infiltration of the army and Iraqi police by insurgents and their sympathizers.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was troubled that with such uneven progress in training the Iraqi army, the Bush administration is still planning for the possible withdrawal of some U.S. troops from Iraq next year.

Casey said troops reductions are an important part of the overall military strategy for stabilizing Iraq. He declined to predict, as he had in July, that the Pentagon could make a fairly substantial troop withdrawal next year if political progress continues and the insurgency does not grow more violent. But he said under questioning by committee members that troop reductions were possible in 2006.

"You're taking a very big gamble here," McCain said to Casey "I hope you're correct. I don't see the indicators yet that we are ready to plan or begin troop withdrawals, given the overall security situation."

Democrats on the panel pressed Casey and Gen. John Abizaid, the Central Command commander who also testified, for clear measures of progress on the military front and for indications that the Iraqis are taking seriously the need to assume more responsibility for their own security.

There are now about 149,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and the number is likely to top 150,000 as Casey bolsters the force to prepare for an expected increase in violence before an Oct. 15 referendum on the Iraqi constitution.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also testified. Together with Casey and Abizaid they also testified before the House Armed Services Committee.

Abizaid cited several encouraging signs in Iraq. He said the main battles against the insurgency had shifted to western Iraq, "which is a good sign, a good indicator that Iraqi and U.S. forces are having an effect elsewhere."

Also, infiltration of foreign fighters across the Syrian border "remains a concern, but it's down."

Both Abizaid and Casey said they did not want a large increase of U.S. forces in Iraq, in part because that would fuel the insurgency by reinforcing the perception among Iraqis of the Americans as occupiers.

The hearing came on a day when five American soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Ramadi in western Iraq. That brought the number of U.S. troops who have died in Iraq since the war began in 2003 to 1,934, according to a tally by The Associated Press.

Casey said events between now and December, when Iraq is scheduled to hold a national election _ assuming the draft constitution is approved in the October referendum _ will determine when U.S. troops can begin going home. The constitution is expected to be approved.

On a less optimistic note, Casey said political divisions in Iraq could widen if, as he expects, a sizable majority of Sunni Arabs vote against the constitution.

"I think that's entirely possible, senator," Casey told Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. "I mean, as we've looked at this, we've looked for the constitution to be a national compact, and the perception now is that it's not, particularly among the Sunni."