Girding for the Task in Iraq

The new chief of US Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, brings a healthy sense of realism to the task in Iraq. That's not to disparage his predecessor in any way. But the new commander, a Lebanese-American who speaks fluent Arabic, made it clear in a Pentagon briefing Wednesday that he has no illusions about the challenges facing the Iraq mission, both at home and in the field.

It has become increasingly clear that the daily guerrilla attacks on US troops and Iraqis working with them are well organized. General Abizaid says the threat has several facets: mid-level remnants of the Baathist regime and Special Republican Guard; the Ansar al-Islam terrorist group, which has links to Al Qaeda; and other foreign fighters, perhaps even Al Qaeda itself.

The continuing violence, mostly confined to the "Sunni triangle" north and west of Baghdad, has caused some overdue rethinking in Washington about strategy and deployments. The 3rd Infantry Division's morale needs attention; soldiers and spouses are deeply upset at reports they might not come home as soon as expected.

Abizaid is trying to manage such expectations, noting that in the future, units may serve as long as a year or more in Iraq, rather than the six-month stints that have been routine on other deployments. He wants soldiers and families to have dependable dates for return home. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is putting together a rotational scheme to relieve the troops - one that will include the Marines (who don't usually do such work) and top National Guard units. The top brass must also ensure that military families stateside - some hurting financially while reservists on active duty are away from their civilian jobs - get the material, emotional, and spiritual support they need while husbands, wives, and parents are away doing dangerous work. (The public can do its part through private charitable organizations.)

Washington's dilemma is worsened by the difficulty it has had recruiting other nations to help keep the peace. Key countries such as India and France have refused to do so without a UN resolution. NATO will have its hands full in Afghanistan soon. Secretary of State Colin Powell is discussing with his counterparts a new Security Council resolution to pave the way for a larger international role and perhaps reduce the $3.9 billion a month the deployment is costing US taxpayers.

Despite daily reports of US soldiers killed or wounded, there are hopeful signs in Iraq. The Iraqi Governing Council is up and running. The number of Iraqi police continues to grow, although they need equipment and logistical support. Now the US must demonstrate the staying power needed to finish the job.

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