U.S. Military Looks to Security Handoff in Iraq

Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, says he expects this year will mark a major change as Iraqi forces assume the burden of the conflict. The United States expects to cut troop levels in Iraq this year, but Abizaid is making no absolute promises.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Good morning. The top U.S. general overseeing the war in Iraq says he expects this year will mark a major change as Iraqi forces assume the burden of the conflict. General John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, is urging Americans to be patient during the transition.

NPR's John Hendren spent a day with the General in Baghdad.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

As he begins his latest visit to Baghdad, General Abizaid says he has one major goal for this year, that 2006 will be the year in which the United States shifts the balance of the war to Iraq's new government.

General JOHN ABIZAID (U.S. Central Command, Iraq): For the past nearly three years now we have been in the lead in counter-insurgency operations in the country, and in 2006 it's our task to move from being in the lead to being in support. And shifting this balance is a very easy thing to say but a hard thing to do, especially with institutions that aren't quite mature enough to handle the pressures of a national insurgency such as that what exist here today.

HENDREN: In many ways progress has been sluggish. Lights throughout the country routinely go dark without warning. The Shiite areas to the south and the Kurdish areas to the north are relatively quiet. But in central Iraq insurgents have made Baghdad a locus of violence. Suicidal Jihadists kill civilians and troops on a daily basis with bombs hidden on motorcycles, in explosive belts and in cars. Five hundred and fifty last year alone. But the four star general says things have come a long way.

Gen. ABIZAID: You know, I can think back to how things were three years ago, when I first came here in April of '03. I remember saying too, there was a tank right outside this building firing its main gun round down the road at some target. There weren't people moving around, it was clearly a war zone. There was no Iraqi army, there was no Iraqi police, there as no order anywhere. Now, the great unknown during this particular period is how is the government going to shape up?

HENDREN: As Abizaid speaks across town, Iraq's ruling Shiite Muslim coalition announces the latest sign of political progress.

Two days after the December parliamentary election was certified, interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari is appointed to serve Iraq's first full four-year term heading the government. The U.S., meanwhile, intends to cut troop levels this year, but Abizaid is making no promises.

Gen. ABIZAID: I can see some circumstances, as anybody else could, that if the situation were to get worse in some areas we would have to ask for more troops. And if we have to do that we'll do that. You can see a scenario where the country moves towards civil war because of sectarian pressures becoming too great. I would say these are low probability events.

HENDREN: He urges those in Congress and elsewhere who are calling for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq to be patient.

Gen. ABIZAID: People who want to rush this thing are making a mistake. The difference in the confidence of the commanders in the field who are doing the job and the lack of confidence I sense in some quarters, in Washington in particular, always puzzles me.

HENDREN: The challenges ahead remain daunting. Western Iraq remains a perilous haven of anti-American hostility, and the U.S. military still props up even the Iraqi brigades that are taking the lead with supplies, air power and quick reaction forces on the ground.

There has been progress. Iraqi security forces now outnumber the 130,000 Americans here. On a map of Iraq, a general shows reporters how the swaths of territory in which Iraqi Army brigades take the lead have spread in patches across Northern and Southern Iraq.

The Green Zone is Baghdad's safest and most heavily guarded district, yet even here there's no escaping the insurgent warfare outside.

Unidentified Announcer: Take cover, take cover, take cover.

HENDREN: Not even here at the U.S. Embassy, where Abizaid walks to his last appointment here as in incoming mortar round harmlessly strikes the embassy grounds.

John Hendren, NPR News, Baghdad.

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