Two of the most senior US generals conceded to Congress on Thursday that the surge in sectarian violence in Baghdad in recent weeks means Iraq may descend into civil war.
"Iraq could move toward civil war" if the violence is not contained, General John Abizaid, the top US commander in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I have seen it," he said, adding that the top priority in Iraq is to secure the capital, where factional violence has surged in recent weeks despite efforts by the new Iraqi government to stop the fighting.
General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 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 US 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."
US President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have steadfastly refused to call the situation in Iraq a civil war. However, Rumsfeld at a news conference on Wednesday acknowledged that the violence is increasing.
Talking to reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday as Bush flew to Texas, press secretary Tony Snow said that the generals had "reiterated something we've talked about on a number of occasions, which is the importance of securing Baghdad, which is why ... you're going to see more and more of a troop presence in Baghdad. ... Obviously, sectarian violence is a concern."
Asked specifically to state the White House's reaction to the statements about a possible civil war, Snow replied, "OK, well, I don't think the president is going to quibble with his generals on their characterizations."
The commanders' remarks come at a time when, thanks to the high level of violence in Baghdad, administration hopes have diminished of significantly reducing the US force in Iraq, which Rumsfeld said currently totals 133,000.
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