Washington Two top Pentagon commanders said Thursday that spiraling violence in Baghdad could propel Iraq into outright civil war, using a politically loaded term that the Bush administration has long avoided.
The generals said they believe a full-scale civil war is unlikely. Even so, their comments to Congress cast the war in more somber hues than the administration usually uses, and further dampened lawmakers' hopes that troops would begin returning home in substantial numbers from the widely unpopular war in time for this fall's elections.
"I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I have seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war," Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the senators, "We do have the possibility of that devolving into civil war."
White House press secretary Tony Snow, flying with President Bush to Texas aboard Air Force One, said 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 about the generals' comments about a civil war, Snow said, "OK, well, I don't think the president is going to quibble with his generals on their characterizations."
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 was increasing.
Asked whether the United States would continue to have a military mission in Iraq in the event that a major civil war broke out, Rumsfeld declined to respond directly, saying he didn't want to give the impression that he presumed there would be a civil war. He said the question must ultimately be handled by the Iraqis.
"Our role is to support the government. The government is holding together. The armed forces are holding together," he said at the Senate hearing Thursday.
There are currently about 133,000 U.S. forces in Iraq. The Pentagon has recently decided to extend the deployment of some 3,500 troops and send them into Baghdad, along with Iraqi forces, to bolster security.
Last year, Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, expressed hopes of significant troop cuts this year, comments that Abizaid seemed to temper on Thursday.
"It's possible to imagine some reductions in forces, but I think the most important thing to imagine is Baghdad coming under the control of the Iraqi government," Abizaid said.
Abizaid also said 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.
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-trillion dollars.
Abizaid and Pace said they did not predict a year ago that sectarian violence would be as high as it is now.
Abizaid said he believed Iraq would "move toward equilibrium in the next five years" with the right mix of political and military pressure. Bush has said he does not expect the last U.S. troops to leave during his presidency, which ends in January 2009.
"Shiite and Sunni are going to have to love their children more than they hate each other," Pace said. "The weight of that must be on the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government."
The Bush administration's handling of the war drew sharp rebukes from Democrats and some Republicans Thursday. Sen. John McCain likened the positioning of forces in Iraq to a game of "whack-a-mole," where generals try to curb violence in one area only to see it pop up somewhere else.
"It's very disturbing," said McCain, R-Ariz. "And if it's all up to the Iraqi military, General Abizaid, and if it's all up to them, then I wonder why we have to move troops into Baghdad to intervene in what is clearly sectarian violence."
Rumsfeld also sparred with Democratic senators over his handling of the war.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York told Rumsfeld he was "presiding over a failed policy" in Iraq, and asked him why lawmakers should believe his assurances that that conditions in Iraq would improve.
"My goodness," Rumsfeld responded to her list of complaints; then he restated administration positions.
The generals' comments posed anew the question of what would happen if the Iraqi government crumbled and U.S. troops were left between competing armed militias. Sen. John W. Warner, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said a civil war in Iraq would raise questions about the U.S. commitment there.
"I think we have to examine very carefully what Congress authorized the president to do in the context of a situation if we're faced with an all-out civil war and whether we have to come back to the Congress to get further indication of support," said Warner, R-Va.
Pace told McCain that U.S. troops are trained and equipped to respond to violence caused by ethnic strife, but that their role would be limited.
"There's a difference between the kind of violence they have to handle and what will prevent that violence," Pace said. "And preventing that violence is very much the role of the political leaders in Iraq to solve, sir."
Later in the hearing, the generals expressed confidence that the Iraqi government was moving in the right direction and that a civil war was not probable.
"Am I optimistic whether or not Iraqi forces, with our support, with the backing of the Iraqi government, can prevent the slide to civil war? My answer is yes," Abizaid said.