WASHINGTON — The top U.S. military commander in the Middle East told Congress on Thursday that "Iraq could move toward civil war" if the raging sectarian violence in Baghdad is not stopped.
"I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I have seen it," Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said the top priority in the Iraq war is to secure the capital, where factional violence has surged in recent weeks despite efforts by the new Iraqi government to stop the fighting.
A similar remark was offered by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told the panel, "We do have the possibility of that devolving into civil war." He added that this need not happen and stressed that ultimately it depends on the Iraqis more than on the U.S. military.
"Shiite and Sunni are going to have to love their children more than they hate each other," Pace said, before the tensions can be overcome. "The weight of that must be on the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government."
President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have steadfastly refused to call the situation in Iraq a civil war, although Rumsfeld at a news conference on Wednesday acknowledged that the violence is increasing.
The commanders' concessions about the threat of a civil war came just three months before congressional elections in which Bush administration policy in Iraq looms as a defining issue. Many voters have tired of the 3-year-old war, which has cost more than 2,500 U.S. lives and more than a quarter billion taxpayer dollars.
Rumsfeld, who testified alongside Abizaid and Pace, did not comment directly on the prospect of civil war but said Iraq's future lay in the hands of Iraqis, beginning with a reconciliation process that has yet to get under way.
"Ultimately the sectarian violence is going to be dealt with by Iraqis," Rumsfeld said.
Under questioning by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Pace said he did not anticipate one year ago that Iraq would now be in danger of descending into civil war. Abizaid said it was obvious a year ago that sectarian violence was on the rise, and that Iraq's police forces did not develop as well as U.S. officials had expected.
"It's vital that we turn this around," the general said.
Abizaid also said under questioning that it was possible that U.S. casualties could rise as a result of the battle to contain sectarian violence in the capital.
"I think it's possible that in the period ahead of us in Baghdad that we'll take increased casualties — that's possible," he said.