updated 6/15/2004 12:24:12 PM ET 2004-06-15T16:24:12

The Army’s top general on Tuesday likened the global war on terrorism to fighting cancer and said the threat posed by Islamic extremists who seek to destroy the United States is “never going to go away in our lifetime.”

“I can’t remember a time that, honestly, was more dangerous than what we’re in today because of the nature of this threat,” Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, said in a breakfast interview with a group of reporters.

“Past wars have been like having pneumonia. It may leave a bunch of scars on your lungs, but you get cured of it,” he added. “This (war) is a little bit like having cancer. You may get in remission, but it’s never going to go away in our lifetime.”

The threat from Islamic extremism is particularly worrying for its potential for attack using weapons of mass destruction, he said.

Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary of homeland security for border and transportation security, said Tuesday that while the threat is real, it’s very difficult to predict when terrorists will strike.

“Whereas we expect action very quick in American society, it’s nothing for them to wait eight years between the first World Trade Center attack and the second one,” Hutchinson said on CBS’s “The Early Show.”

“And so they’re patient; they wait for the right time. It’s sometimes difficult to determine what their criteria for the right time is. ... They pick what they believe is exactly the right time to hit America,” he said.

Asked about the military ramifications of the scheduled June 30 handover of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government, Schoomaker said it will not change the Army’s focus on defeating the insurgency and stabilizing the country.

“I don’t think our soldiers are going to be any safer,” after June 30, he said. “In fact I think it’s very, very dangerous to think somehow because 30 June comes along that you can act differently” in terms of the military approach.

Schoomaker, who came out of retirement last August to become the Army chief of staff, said the Iraq war has been a tough challenge for the Army but also presents an opportunity to force changes in the way the service is structured.

“It’s stressing the Army. I don’t think that’s a secret,” he said.

He also pledged to vigorously pursue the investigation into the mistreatment of Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison.

“We need to get to the bottom of it and deal with it comprehensively, and we will,” he said.

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