P The Central Command commander said he is establishing an Iraqi "civil defense force" to help U.S. troops.
By Robert Burns ~ The Associated Press
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Resistance to U.S. forces in Iraq will grow in coming months as progress is made in creating a new government to replace the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein, the top commander of American and international troops in Iraq predicted Sunday.
Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of Central Command, said he is establishing an Iraqi "civil defense force," or armed militia, to help U.S. forces combat the violence and sabotage that Abizaid and others believe is being spearheaded by remnants of Saddam's regime.
Speaking with a small group of reporters over lunch at a Baghdad hotel, Abizaid said that the establishment earlier this month of a Governing Council of Iraqi political leaders was a good first step that improves the outlook for getting the country back on its feet.
"But in the short run it creates great anxiety among our enemies, and they'll increase the level of resistance," Abizaid said. "So I'm enormously optimistic about our opportunity for success, as long as we don't lose our nerve."
The ambush death of two soldiers Sunday in northeren Iraq brought to 151 the number of U.S. troops killed in action since the March 20 start of war -- including 36 since May 1, when President Bush declared major combat over.
Abizaid was joined at the lunch by Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, who has made a point of insisting that the attackers not be called "resistance."
He says they should be called "forces of reaction" whose sole aim is to restore Saddam to power and thereby regain the positions of privilege and power they enjoyed in the old regime. At one point Wolfowitz referred to Saddam's Baath Party loyalists as sadists.
Wolfowitz is touring Iraq to assess progress on the military, economic and political fronts, amid anxiety among some in Congress that the Bush administration is taking the wrong approach and should be doing more to get more coalition partners involved.
On his fourth day in Iraq, Wolfowitz also visited a Baghdad police academy where Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who is overseeing the effort to create new Iraqi police forces, showed him a nearby prison where inmates were said to have been brutalized. Kerik said the FBI is beginning an investigation at the site, where dirt mounds and witness reports indicate many women prisoners may have been buried.
At the academy, U.S. troops are training police recruits, including some from the police force that served under Saddam.
Wolfowitz also met Ahmid K. Ibrahim, who Kerik said is a candidate to be named Baghdad police chief or its chief of operations. Ibrahim, 53, told Wolfowitz that under the Saddam regime he was jailed for a year and tortured for having denounced Saddam privately to a friend.
In describing to Wolfowitz the sources of trouble in Baghdad, Kerik -- like Abizaid -- used the term "resistance." Wolfowitz immediately corrected him. "Not 'resistance.' Forces of reaction," he said.
Whatever they may be called, Abizaid said in the interview that he will quickly establish eight battalions of armed Iraqi militiamen, each with about 850 men. They will be trained by conventional U.S. forces -- a job usually handled by American special operations forces -- and he said he expects them to be ready to begin operating within 45 days.
"There is an awful lot of enthusiasm in Iraq to have people armed and serving with us because they want to defend their country," he said. Earlier this month Abizaid replaced Gen. Tommy Franks as head of Central Command. Franks is retiring from the Army.
The Iraqi militias will go on patrols with American troops but they will not participate in offensive combat operations, Abizaid said. Eventually they would either be established as a permanent paramilitary force or be folded into a new, conventional Iraqi army, he said.
A major aim of Wolfowitz's visit, which has included stops in the southern cities of Najaf and Basra as well as the central cities of Karbala and Hilla, has been to emphasize the brutality Saddam imposed on his own people. Wolfowitz has not mentioned the main reason the Bush administration cited for going to war: weapons of mass destruction.
On Sunday he visited the notorious Abu Gharib prison outside of the Iraqi capital, where U.N. official Bill Irbine told Wolfowitz that an estimated 30,000 people were executed before Saddam emptied the prison in October 2002. Irbine said a former guard told him that on a single day as many as 66 prisoners were executed by electrocution or hanging.
On a tiled wall in the prison's mess hall is a painting of Saddam smoking a cigar, with the accompanying message in Arabic, "All love and faith to our leader Saddam Hussein."
Wolfowitz ended his day in northern Iraq, where he visited with troops and commanders of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, which has been based in the city of Mosul since April 22.