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02-25-06, 07:05 AM
February 24, 2006
Commanders: Iraqi army can quell serious spike in violence
By Gordon Lubold
Times staff writer

U.S. commanders say the recent spike in violence in Iraq is more than just a “bump in the road,” but they have confidence in Iraqi army forces to quell the unrest themselves. They do not rule out increasing U.S. force levels, however, if the Iraqis are unable to stabilize the country.

“This is more than a bump in the road, it’s a pothole,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of plans and strategy for Central Command, in a Thursday interview at a hotel near the Pentagon. Kimmitt said the ability of Iraqi security forces to address the violence occurring now is a major test of Iraqi forces’ competence, but that he remains confident they can do what is needed.

“We believe cooler heads are going to prevail,” said Kimmitt. “There are enough shock absorbers in the system that this is not going to lead to increasing sectarian violence,” he said, continuing the road metaphor.

But Kimmitt added if events do deteriorate, U.S. commanders, including Gen. George Casey, commander of Multi-national Forces-Iraq, might ask for more troops.

“There may be a need for more American forces. We don’t think so at this time, but events are going to bear this out,” he said.

Casey will likely make recommendations on force levels within the next two months, Kimmitt said.

Violence erupted after the golden dome was blown off a historic Shiite mosque on Wednesday in Samarra, and the resulting protests and killings have only worsened the situation. As many as 130 people have died, and several American service members were also killed in roadside bombing attacks over the last week.

The Iraqi government has imposed a curfew and tried to use its security forces to stop the violence, which threatens the success of the national unity government. The U.S. hopes that government can fully form and help to create conditions in which U.S. forces could be withdrawn.

Senior Pentagon officials acknowledged there were challenges on the ground, but say they do not see it degenerating into civil war. They would not speculate on what the U.S. role would be should the violence escalate even more.

“This is a pretty dramatic effort to disrupt the political process,” said Peter Rodman, assistant secretary for defense policy, at the Pentagon on Friday, referring to the mosque bombing and other violence. Officials said the unrest is probably “the toughest test” to the nascent government in Iraq.

On Friday, the Pentagon also issued its congressionally-mandated quarterly report on progress in Iraq called “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq.”

The report indicates there are 98 Iraqi army and special operations battalions now conducting counterinsurgency operations — an 11 percent increase since October. Of those 98, 53 are considered to be “in the lead or fully independent,” which is a 47 percent increase over three months ago.

“We are making progress on the ground, there is no doubt about it,” Kimmitt said.

A challenge remains in training Iraqi police, but U.S. commanders have begun to focus on that mission as well, going so far as to calling 2006 “the year of the police.”

At the end of the 56-page report, in a section titled “Withdrawing Forces,” the report repeats the Pentagon’s mantra regarding troop withdrawal, namely that as conditions improve on the ground, U.S. forces will be allowed to go home. But even the report hints at the possibility of a troop increase.

“Coalition force levels will increase, if necessary, to defeat the enemy or provide additional security for key events like the recent referendum and elections,” the report said. “But the goal, over time, is to reduce coalition forces as Iraqis continue to take on more of the security and civilian responsibilities themselves.”