MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
There was sobering testimony on Iraq today from two top military commanders. With Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sitting a few away, the generals told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iraq could descend into civil war. They said it could come to that unless the rising violence in Baghdad is brought to an end. Senators from both parties expressed anxiety that American troops could find themselves stuck in the middle of warring factions.
NPR's Tom Bowman reports.
TOM BOWMAN reporting:
The top American commander in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, is considered one of the most candid general officers, and what he said today was one of the most pessimistic reports about Iraq since the fall of Baghdad more than three years ago.
General JOHN ABIZAID (U.S. Army): I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that, if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war.
BOWMAN: Arizona Republican John McCain and others jumped on the notion of civil war. McCain pressed General Peter Pace, the Pentagon's top military officer, and then Abizaid.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Did you anticipate this situation a year ago?
General PETER PACE (U.S. Army): No, sir.
Senator McCAIN: Did you, General Abizaid?
General ABIZAID: I believe that a year ago it was clear to see that sectarian tensions were increasing.
Senator McCAIN: That they would be this high?
General ABIZAID: No.
BOWMAN: And if Iraq descends into civil war? Republican John Warner of Virginia, the committee's chairman, asked Pace how American troops would respond.
Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): What is the mission of the United States today if, under this resolution, if that situation erupts into a civil war? What is the mission of our forces?
General PACE: Sir, I believe that U.S. Armed Forces today can continue to do what we're doing, which is to help provide enough security inside of Iraq for the Iraqi government.
BOWMAN: For months, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and others in the administration have pointed to the progress in Iraq, such as the formation of a new government. Rumsfeld repeated some of those measurements today, even while acknowledging the war on terror would be a “long struggle.” And he brushed back suggestions that a timetable should be set for reducing U.S. troop levels in Iraq.
Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD (Secretary of Defense): We need to be realistic about the consequences. If we left Iraq prematurely, as the terrorists demand, the enemy would tell us to leave Afghanistan and then withdraw from the Middle East.
BOWMAN: Democrat Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts is among those urging that U.S. troops start coming home, and he tallied the number of months Americans have fought and died in Iraq compared to other wars.
Senator TED KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): We've been in Iraq for 40 months and 13 days. The Korean War, 37 months. World War I, 19 months. Persian Gulf War, 3 months. The Civil War was 48 months. We've been in there now for 40 months and 13 days. We're the finest military that's ever been developed in basically rather a third-rate military situation. How much more do we really expect our military can do? How much more can we demand of them?
BOWMAN: Rumsfeld said Kennedy had a valid point and he said the fate of Iraq is up to the Iraqis themselves.
Mr. RUMSFELD: Ultimately, the sectarian violence is going to be dealt with by Iraqis and it's going to be dealt with by Iraqi security forces as a part of the solution through a reconciliation process, a political process that Maliki, the prime minister, and others in the country are trying to design in a way that it will pull together elements within the country and thereby reduce sectarian violence.
BOWMAN: Now U.S. troop strength in Baghdad will grow by about 50% to roughly 13,000 troops, but Abizaid said the larger American presence was needed to bring Baghdad under control. He said the Iraqi death squads and sectarian militias that have preyed on the population must be stopped. But he acknowledged there would be a price to pay. McCain said he had heard all this before. American troops were once shifted to Fallujah to end the violence, then Ramadi, now Baghdad.
Senator MCCAIN: What I worry about is we're playing a game of whack a mole, here.
BOWMAN: And the committee chairman went even further. Warner said Congress backed the military action against Saddam Hussein in 2002, but if the country falls into civil war, the Bush administration may have to return to Congress for a new vote on what role American troops play in Iraq.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, the Pentagon.