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updated 3/3/2006 4:51:22 PM ET 2006-03-03T21:51:22

The top U.S. commander in Iraq said on Friday that the crisis of sectarian violence triggered by last week’s bombing of a Shiite shrine has passed but refused to rule out the possibility of a civil war.

Army Gen. George Casey, briefing reporters at the Pentagon by teleconference from Iraq, also said he has not made any decision yet on whether to recommend to the Pentagon and President Bush reductions in U.S. troop levels in Iraq. Such a recommendation on force size will be made in the spring, he said.

“Is the violence out of control? Clearly not. Now, it appears that the crisis has passed,” Casey said.

“But we all should be clear Iraqis remain under threat of terrorist attack by those who will stop at nothing to undermine the formation of the constitutionally elected government, a government of national unity and a government that represents all Iraqis.”

Sectarian violence flared after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of Iraq’s four holiest Shiite shrines.

‘Anything can happen ... but’
Asked whether Iraq was close to a civil war or could fall into such a conflict, Casey said, “Anything can happen.”

“But I think as long as the coalition forces are here on the ground working with the Iraqi security forces, and the vast majority of the Iraqi people remain committed to forming a government of national unity — which I firmly believe that they do — I think the chances of that are not good,” Casey said.

James Jeffrey, senior adviser for Iraq to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said recent sectarian attacks and reprisal killings are troubling, but do not necessarily portend further violence or civil war.

“It indicates that the path to national reconciliation and the path to a national compact that we’re striving so much for has a ways to go,” Jeffrey said. “It means we better continue working and work harder on it.”

Bush is expected to meet with top U.S. military commanders next week.

Military officials say they are sticking to current plans to send additional units to Iraq later this summer, and acknowledge that a decision will have to be made soon on whether to keep some of those troops home instead.

One Defense Department official said the military is waiting to see if attacks between the majority Shiite Muslims and the Sunni Arabs escalate or slack off. Military units will continue preparing to go to Iraq because it is easier to cancel deployment orders than to restart preparations if troops are suddenly needed, said the official, who requested anonymity because troop decisions have not been finalized.

Jeffrey said that al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is the “likely suspect” in the Feb. 22 Samarra mosque bombing, although he said there is no clear evidence of that. He added that although neighboring Iran is trying to increase its political pull among Iraq’s factions, “we see no specific line that leads you directly to Iran in any of what happened in the last week and a half.”

Drawdown by end of 2006?
Defense officials have said they would reassess troop levels in the spring, and the Pentagon has hoped to reduce the military presence in Iraq to below 100,000 by year’s end. There are currently 133,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

The 25th Infantry Division, based in Hawaii, and seven other major military units are scheduled to deploy to Iraq as part of the next troop rotation this summer.

One prominent lawmaker who has called for a quick withdrawal said his view has not changed.

“We’re in the middle of a civil war,” Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said this week. “We’ve got to get our guys out of there.”

He predicted that Republicans in Congress will pressure the administration to follow through on plans to reduce troop levels as Election Day draws closer regardless of whether the violence has abated.

No easy choice
Middle East experts, however, warn that the military is facing a difficult choice: Continue the gradual withdrawal and risk leaving the country in chaos, or stay in an increasingly dangerous and divided Iraq and try to force national unity.

The escalating bloodshed, they say, is happening too fast for U.S. forces to train and equip the Iraqi military and police to handle it. That may force troops to stay in Iraq longer to try to quell the violence.

“Whether we stay or not in response to the violence — there is not a straightforward answer,” said Vali R. Nasr, a Middle East analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations. “We can’t leave Iraq before it’s stable because that creates greater danger. Or we have to leave Iraq because it creates greater danger — if there is a collapse of security in the south, U.S. troops may be overwhelmed.”

John Alterman, the Middle East program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that as violence increases, more Iraqis will turn to the sectarian-based militias for protection. That would further erode efforts to unite the country, and drive a bigger wedge between the ethnic and religious factions.

Right now, he said, “people feel that the national institutions — the army or police forces — won’t protect them as Iraqis, but will instead harm them as Sunni, Shia or something else.”

And, he said, the dilemma for the military and U.S. policy-makers is whether the coalition should force unity in Iraq, even if the violence declines a bit as the country splits up into various sectarian regions.

“Increasing segregation could result in a decrease in violence; is that something they would work to change?” Alterman said. “As things become more sectarian, does that become part of our mission to address, or do we chalk it up to things beyond our control?”

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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