New U.S. Military Chief in Middle East Urges Iraqi Unity

By Vince Crawley
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - The new U.S. commander for the Middle East says he is “guardedly optimistic” about progress in Iraq but stresses that Iraqi leaders need to set aside narrow sectarian interests and build a government that represents and protects its people.

Testifying before Congress April 18, Admiral William Fallon also acknowledged that President Bush’s “surge” of forces in Iraq has resulted in a high level of casualties, particularly in Baghdad. But in al-Anbar province, another target of the surge, reports show a steady decline in violence and killings every week for the past eight weeks.

Fallon, a Navy admiral, became commander of U.S. Central Command in March, replacing Army General John Abizaid. Fallon previously was in charge of U.S. Pacific Command, where he built a reputation for coordinating strategic military objectives with regional diplomacy. Fallon testified before the House Armed Services Committee.

President Bush in January announced an increase of U.S. forces in Baghdad to bolster security and stability in the troubled capital. More than 25,000 additional U.S. forces are involved in the troop surge, and about half of those troops now have deployed to Baghdad, accompanied by a comparable increase in Iraqi security forces.

“Though sectarian interests are working overtime to try to divide them, large numbers of Iraqi people are indicating they are tired of the violence and willing to cooperate with Iraqi and coalition security forces,” Fallon said, adding that “a lot of people in this country have clearly gotten very tired of the sectarian violence, the murder, the mayhem and chaos that are reigning every day.”

“I am guardedly optimistic,” he said. His staff, he said, also is working on methods to measure progress accurately. He said his headquarters is “inundated” with massive amounts of data about security in Iraq.

“One thing that’s really standing out – if you look at the number of deaths that we’ve been able to identify over the last several months, you will see a dramatic improvement in those numbers,” Fallon said, “But compared to where it was back in December [2006] and January [2007], there’s a significant improvement. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a direct result of the increased security presence.”

Anbar province has been another focus area for the coalition surge, and Fallon said he has seen a significant drop in violence there.

“I looked at some data yesterday that showed that for the eighth straight week, the level of violence in Anbar province has been coming down,” he said, “and this is a really good sign.”

The reason, Fallon said, “is that, in fact, people are fed up. And the tribal leaders there have made alliances among themselves and have come to the coalition and the government and said that they would prefer to work with us rather than al-Qaida.”

Anbar is home to much of Iraq’s minority Sunni population, which dominated Iraq’s political ruling class during the Saddam Hussein regime.  Many Sunnis have resisted cooperating with Iraq’s unity government for fear they would be discriminated against by Iraq’s Shiite majority.

Fallon also said a largely Iraqi-led security presence along the Syrian border crossing has cut off a major transit route for al-Qaida-linked fighters, who are predominantly Sunni.

“The focus is clearly in Baghdad and Anbar because these have been the historic hotbeds of challenge,” Fallon said. “The reason that many of the indicators are positive is because of the very significant engagement of U.S. forces along with Iraqi forces.”

Fallon said the ultimate U.S. goal is an Iraq in which “the majority of the people feel that there is actually a government that has an interest in them and not just the narrow base from which the actual leaders are drawn. And that's the critical step that needs to take place if we're going to be successful."

The full text of Fallon’s statement as prepared for delivery is available on the House Armed Services Committee Web site.

For more information, see Iraq Update.