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Incoming commander urges new action in Iraq

Stabilizing Iraq will require “new and different actions” to improve security and promote political reconciliation, the Navy admiral poised to lead American forces in the Middle East said Tuesday
/ Source: The Associated Press

Stabilizing Iraq will require “new and different actions” to improve security and promote political reconciliation, the Navy admiral poised to lead American forces in the Middle East said Tuesday.

Adm. William Fallon, at his confirmation hearing, also told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it may be time to “redefine the goals” in Iraq. And he said he believes Iran would like to limit America’s influence in the region.

“I believe the situation in Iraq can be turned around, but time is short,” he said.

Fallon, 62, who currently is commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, said he saw a need for a comprehensive approach to Iraq, including economic and political actions to resolve a problem that requires more than military force.

“What we have been doing has not been working,” he said. “We have got to be doing, it seems to me, something different.”

Fallon said that “we probably erred in our assessment” of the Iraqi government’s ability to rebuild its society and establish a peaceful order after the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein nearly four years ago.

“One of the things in the back of my mind that I’d like to get answered is to meet with the people that have been working this issue — particularly our ambassadors, our diplomats — to get an assessment of what’s realistic and what’s practical,” Fallon said.

“And maybe we ought to redefine the goals here a bit and do something that’s more realistic in terms of getting some progress and then maybe take on the other things later,” he added.

Syria accused of providing lethal help
In addition Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee convened a hearing to consider the nomination of John Negroponte, the first director of national intelligence, to become deputy secretary of state.

Negroponte told the panel that Syria is allowing 40 to 75 foreign fighters to cross its border into Iraq each month and repeated the charge that Iran is providing lethal help to insurgents fighting U.S. forces in Iraq.

Negroponte gave only mild endorsement, however, to the administration’s diplomatic hands-off policy toward Damascus and Tehran. Negroponte would lead the department’s Iraq policy if confirmed.

Fallon and Negroponte’s confirmations were not expected to rouse Senate protests, despite bitter opposition in Congress to Bush’s plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq.

Public sentiment has turned strongly against a war that has dragged on for nearly four years with more than 3,000 American dead and violence unabated by insurgents and sectarian militias.

President Bush nominated Fallon to replace Army Gen. John Abizaid, who is retiring after nearly four years as commander of Central Command.

Eye on Iran
Several Senators asked Fallon his views on Iran, which the Bush administration accuses of meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs and supplying weapons for use by insurgents against American and Iraqi soldiers.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., asked what he thinks are the intentions of the Iranian government, with regard to security in the Gulf region.

“They are posturing themselves with the capability to attempt to deny us the ability to operate in this vicinity,” Fallon said, adding that there is room for diplomatic efforts with Iran because it also has an economic stake in keeping open the commercial shipping lanes of the Gulf.

“They are aware of our strike capabilities,” he added, and are looking for ways to either neutralize those U.S. capabilities or to keep U.S. forces at bay.

Fallon said he has not been ordered to update the Pentagon’s contingency plans for war with Iran.

Fallon said he did not know how many extra troops will be needed in Iraq to successfully implement the new strategy Bush announced Jan. 10. Bush approved the deployment of an additional 21,500 troops between now and May.

Asked by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the committee, whether the flow of additional U.S. troops would be tied to progress by the Iraqis on political and other commitments they made to Bush, Fallon said he had not yet studied the plans in detail, given his continuing responsibilities as Pacific Command chief.

“I’m surprised you don’t have that understanding going in, frankly,” Levin said.

'We need candid assessments'
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the senior Republican on the committee, said he hoped Fallon intended to give Congress his unvarnished view of conditions in Iraq and elsewhere in his Central Command region.

“Too often administration officials came before this committee and the American people and painted a rosy scenario when it was not there,” McCain said, referring to Iraq.

“We need candid assessments, and you’ll get them from me,” Fallon said.

Some were surprised when Bush chose Fallon to lead Central Command, in light of the protracted land wars it is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He would be the first Navy admiral to hold the position.

The Central Command is responsible for U.S. military operations and relations in 27 countries stretching from the Horn of Africa, through the Middle East to Central Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In remarks prepared for delivery later Tuesday, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a member of the Armed Services Committee who recently returned from a trip to the region, said only another 200,000 or 300,000 U.S. troops would make a substantial difference in Iraq.

“Based on everything I saw last month, and based on my conversations with Iraqi officials, our own military leaders and rank-and-file soldiers, I am convinced more troops won’t end the sectarian violence,” Nelson said.

Nelson also was expected to deliver a sharp rebuke of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Nelson said that al-Maliki “either lacks the will, or the nerve, to take on the Shiite militias.”

Last Friday the Senate approved, 81-0, Bush’s nomination of Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus to be the senior U.S. commander in Iraq. Petraeus, who is replacing Gen. George Casey, would report to Fallon.