Abizaid: Iraq troop levels to hold steady until 2007
ARLINGTON, Va. — U.S. troop levels in Iraq will likely stay at more than 140,000 personnel at least until early 2007, Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, said Tuesday.
“I think this level will probably have to be sustained through springtime,” Abizaid told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.
With violence persisting, Abizaid also did not rule out the possibility of bringing in additional U.S. troops.
“If it’s necessary to do that because the military situation on the ground requires that, we’ll do it,” he said. “If we have to call in more forces because it’s our military judgment that we need more forces, we’ll do it.”
However, Abizaid said, bringing in more American troops is not the long-term answer to winning the fight in Iraq.
“Every time American troops operate in large numbers, it creates a dynamic where Iraqi troops do less,” Abizaid said. “It’s very important for Iraqi forces to take responsibility for military operations in their own country.”
And extending the rotations of troops already in Iraq is unlikely, Abizaid said.
“I think what we told those troops [about redeployment dates], unless there’s a real emergency, that’s when they’ll be coming home.”
Abizaid’s comments about maintaining troop levels extinguished any hope that defense officials would stick to their plan to reduce the force level by two brigades, or about 10,000 troops, by the end of this year.
Military leaders continued to insist the plan was on track even after the February bombing of the Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra, which sparked off a wave of sectarian violence that continues to threaten to drag Iraq into civil war.
“If you had asked me six months ago, I would have said we would be down a couple of brigades,” Abizaid said.
But then came July and August’s alarming escalation of killing in Baghdad, with civilian death tolls soaring.
“The secular tensions, if left unchecked, could be fatal to Iraq,” Abizaid said.
The coalition’s response, which some have labeled the “Battle of Baghdad,” was to concentrate the majority of U.S. military’s firepower, together with large portions of the new Iraqi army, in that city.
“The center of the problem is Baghdad,” Abizaid said. “It’s the area where we’ve got to expend the most military effort.”
As a result of that focus, “the situation in Baghdad, in particular, is slightly better,” than it was over the summer, Abizaid said. “But Baghdad is not going to clarify, militarily, for a couple of months.”
There is still work to do in the Baghdad campaign, Abizaid said, including bringing more Iraqi forces into Baghdad from other areas.
Commanders also just launched a new “barrier move that’s going around the external portions of Baghdad,” Abizaid said.
The plan “keeps getting reported as a trench. It’s really not a trench. It’s controlling movement in and out of Baghdad at 28 various locations around the city,” he said.
Meanwhile, Abizaid said, Iraq’s new ministries of Defense and Interior are continuing to get on their feet.
But “come December, we’ll have a pretty good idea of whether the tactics we’ve employed are right, or we’re going to have to do something different,” Abizaid said.