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Iraq Transition

Top U.S. general: We can stabilize Iraq

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East said Wednesday he is optimistic that "we can stabilize Iraq."

Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, rejected a call from some Democrats for a phased redeployment of forces beginning in four to six months.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Abizaid said such a move would result in an increase in sectarian violence.

Among the Democrats proposing a phased redeployment is Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, who is in line to replace Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia as chairman of the committee in January.

"It seems to me that the prudent course ahead is keep the troop levels about where they are," Abizaid told the committee.

The current force of about 141,000 troops is making progress, he said. (Watch Abizaid discuss troop levels in Iraq -- 1:43)

"While sectarian violence remains high and worrisome, it's certainly not as bad as the situation appeared back in August," Abizaid said.

Also rejecting calls for a phased troop reduction was Ambassador David Satterfield, the State Department's senior adviser on Iraq.

"It would be interpreted as a withdrawal of U.S. support," Satterfield told the committee.

Abizaid would not be pinned to any timetable for withdrawal. He said commanders were considering options that range "from increasing our U.S. combat forces all the way down to withdrawing our U.S. combat forces."

But he said it might be possible to increase "the pace of transition" to bring forward what has been envisioned as a 12- to 18-month transition to Iraqi control.

The key to success, he said, will be for U.S. forces to help the Iraqi military and police -- through embedding -- to create a stable environment so Iraqis do not seek safety from militias.

"It is possible that we might have to go up in troop levels in order to increase the number of forces that go into the Iraqi security forces, but I believe that is only temporary," Abizaid said.

Abizaid's appearance before the Senate panel was the first congressional appearance by a commander since the midterm elections and the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The testimony came on the same week Abizaid met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad, telling him the Iraqi government must quickly take more responsibility for security.

The question of Iraq security was profoundly illustrated this week as dozens of Iraqis were kidnapped from a research institute on Tuesday. (Watch how violence has hurt Iraqi education -- 2:17 Video)

Also on the same day, a car bomb killed 12 people and wounded 33 in Baghdad. (Full story)

Abizaid: We need more Iraqi troops

Abizaid acknowledged the U.S. effort to push Iraqis into security roles has faced major challenges.

He confirmed reports that police in Anbar province -- where 40 U.S. troops were killed last month -- have not been paid for three months.

"People in Sunni areas are not being paid in order to advance the sectarian agenda," he said.

But the two key centers in the province, Ramadi and Falluja, are in good shape, he said.

Despite such issues, the addition of more American forces would simply impede Iraqis from taking responsibility for their own future, Abizaid said.

Asked again whether more troops are needed, the general responded, "We do need more troops and the more troops we need are Iraqis."

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a possible presidential candidate who has called for more troops in Iraq, accused Abizaid of simply supporting the status quo.

McCain asked whether the general really believes U.S. troop strength is sufficient to accomplish his aims.

The general acknowledged the military could send 20,000 more troops to help stabilize Baghdad, but said he is not prepared to recommend such a commitment.

Such a move would achieve only "a temporary effect," he said, and further strain an already stretched military.

"The ability to sustain that commitment is simply not something that we have right now, with the size of the Army and the Marine Corps," he said.

Abizaid also responded to questions from McCain and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida about the situation in Anbar province, considered one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq and an area where al Qaeda in Iraq is active.

"Al-Anbar province is not under control," Abizaid told McCain.

"Al-Anbar province is critical, but more critical than al-Anbar province is Baghdad. Baghdad's the main military effort," Abizaid told Nelson. "That's where our military resources will go."

"There will be some hard things on the horizon," Abizaid told the senators. "We'll have to do something in al-Anbar province. We'll have to commit forces to deal with the Mehdi Army.

"Each of those things will be battles in and of themselves that we can win if we set the right political and military conditions. And I sincerely believe we can do that."

The Mehdi Army is the militia of Muslim Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The unpopularity of the conflict was underscored by Satterfield's response to a question about whether the United States has attempted to recruit police from Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Persian Gulf region.

"I don't think the willingness exists," Satterfield said.

Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York expressed impatience with the war, which began in March 2003 and has resulted in more than 2,800 U.S. deaths and thousands more Iraqis.

"Hope is not a strategy," she told the witnesses. "Hortatory talk about what the Iraqi government must do is getting old. ... The brutal fact is it is not happening."

Satterfield and Abizaid both rejected the possibility of solving the conflict by dividing the country into three parts -- one for Shiites, one for Sunnis and the third for Kurds -- as has been suggested by some pundits.

"There is no easy map that can be drawn ... that would not involve death and suffering," Satterfield said. "This is simply not an option. It's not a practical option; it's not a moral option."

Abizaid went further, saying such a move would create an area "where al Qaeda would have safe haven and exploit terror to surrounding territories."

In addition, any Shiite state would be subject to domination by Iran, he said.

As the hearing closed, Abizaid urged the politicians not to consider the situation to be worse than it is.

"When I come to Washington, I feel despair," he said. "When I'm in Iraq with my commanders, when I talk to my soldiers and Iraqi leadership, they are not despairing."

He added, "I believe that we must stick with them until such time that they show us that they can't do it. ... Those among us who fight bet on the Iraqis, and as long as they're confident, I'm confident."

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