August 3rd, 2006 18:13 EST
U.S. General Says Middle East Militias By Jacquelyn S. Porth
Washington " The U.S. commander who oversees military operations in the Middle East says extremism remains a serious danger to global peace and stability " and that the influence of private militias in the Middle East must be curbed.
Army General John Abizaid, who leads the U.S. Central Command, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee August 3 that the forces of extremism are strong, ruthless and well-connected.
The enemy exists not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, but in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. But the vast majority of the people in this broad region of the world do not want to see extremism win, the commander added.
Testifying on the subject of Iraq, Afghanistan and the global war on terrorism, Abizaid said the Iraqi government, in particular, understands the need to increase its military capacity over time in order to defeat the extremists there. Pakistani and Saudi forces also are fighting extremists daily in their respective countries, he said.
Abizaid faulted Iran for arming Hezbollah forces in Lebanon with cruise and anti-ship missiles that can reach the Israeli port of Haifa and beyond. This, in turn, has given Hezbollah a state-like existence and capacity that is unlike any other militia anywhere in the region, " he said.
Abizaid described private militias as the curse of the region " and stressed the importance of curbing their influence in the Middle East.
LEBANON MUST REGAIN SOVEREIGNTY OVER ITS TERRITORY
It is important that Lebanon exist as a sovereign country, Abizaid said. It is key to stability in the Middle East. "
The Lebanese government will need the help of an international force to regain sovereignty over its territory, he said.
Over time, the general predicted, there will be ways -- working in conjunction with the international community -- to disarm Hezbollah. In addition, he said, the Shi`ia who have participated in the political life of Hezbollah can be readily accommodated within the Lebanese body politic. "
Abizaid said the sectarian violence in Iraq, especially in Baghdad, is as bad as he has ever witnessed. If that violence is not halted, he warned, it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war. " But he also said that a violent period could be followed by the stability that Iraq needs.
Marine General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Shi`ia and Sunni have to decide they love their children more than they hate each other, so that the level of violence can be tempered.
He said the Iraqis who aspire to a better way of life must seize the moment, " and he predicted that they would do so once they lose patience with the current security situation.
Both military officers said they do not expect Iraq to gravitate toward civil war because Iraqi government institutions are intact and the necessary diplomatic, political and military steps are being applied to bring the situation under control.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who also testified with Pace and Abizaid, said the U.S. role is to support the Iraqi government and, so far, it is holding together, as is the Iraqi army. (See related article.)
Abizaid did express concern that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have trained rogue Shi`ia groups in Iraq. He also indicated that the Iranian government is paying some members of the private Mahdi army in Iraq. The general said it is vital to persuade groups who have pledged allegiance to militias to pledge their loyalty to the state, instead.
IRAQI DEATH SQUADS WILL BE TARGETED
The Iraqi government will do what is necessary to bring the sectarian violence under control and end the death squads, Abizaid said. When pressed on this issue, he said U.S. military forces will work with the Iraqi security forces to eliminate known death squads.
While some Iraqis are fighting because they do not want to embrace a new government and some want to promote anarchy, Abizaid said, most of the Iraqis want a free, independent nation that is not dominated by Shi`ia extremist groups or by Iranian influences.
Combating extremism, whether it is in Iraq or elsewhere, requires the international community to exhibit a strong, united, collective will to face down the extremist threat from any direction, whether Iran or al-Qaida, according to Abizaid.
While weapons of mass destruction may not have been discovered in Iraq, Abizaid said that does not mean the extremists are not trying to develop such weapons. Because the extremists are working daily to obtain these weapons, he said, it is incumbent on the United States to help shape the regional environment so that the opponents of extremism can help themselves.
The United States is pursuing a strategy to defeat al-Qaida, deter Iranian nuclear ambitions and find a lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict to facilitate this, he said.
For more information about U.S. policy, see the Middle East and North Africa and Response to Terrorism.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)