Abizaid sez more attacks like Samarra may occur
Iraq can expect more bombings like the one at a Shiite Muslim shrine that set off fighting between Shiites and Sunnis, the chief of the U.S. Central Command said Saturday.

Gen. John Abizaid blamed Al-Qaida terrorists for the blast and said it marked a clear and successful change in tactics by the group in its campaign to ignite civil war among Iraqis.

"They got more of a reaction from that than they had hoped for," Abizaid told The Associated Press in Qatar after a two-day trip to Iraq, where he discussed the Feb. 22 attack's implications with top U.S. and Iraqi leaders.

"I expect we'll see another attack in the near future on another symbol," he said. "They'll find some other place that's undefended, they'll strike it and they'll hope for more sectarian violence."

Iraqi security forces eventually blunted the killing with a daytime curfew in four flashpoint provinces, followed by driving bans in Baghdad and its outskirts. But as vehicle restrictions lifted Saturday, at least 14 people died from bombs and gunfire across the country.

Abizaid said he and Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, discussed the potential for a withdrawal of some U.S. troops this summer, but he declined to say what he would recommend to President Bush when they meet next week.

Pentagon officials have said they are sticking to plans to send additional units to Iraq to replace troops scheduled to depart, but are waiting to see whether the clashes between Shiites and Sunnis escalate or slacken.

After meeting with Abizaid in Baghdad, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said he had been assured that U.S. troops will remain in Iraq as long as needed "no matter what the period."

Abizaid described the bombing of the gold-domed shrine in Samarra as a "wake up call" that demands the attention of Iraq's government, U.S. forces and the Iraqi public to be on guard for attempts on new symbolic targets.

"Al-Qaida clearly wants to cause civil war in Iraq," he said.

Stressing that the bombers failed to spark an all-out civil conflict, the general praised Iraqi troops for largely following orders from Iraq's civilian government by setting up security in the streets. He said he was "very, very pleased with the reaction of the Iraqi armed forces."

It was a more upbeat assessment than presented by Casey, who told reporters Thursday that Iraqi police and army units had performed "generally well, not uniformly well."

Casey said that in some instances, the mostly Shiite security forces gave armed Shiites free rein in Baghdad and Basra, where reprisal attacks on Sunni mosques and clerics took days to contain.

Others complained that Iraqi police and troops were slow to react and said much of the heat had gone out of the sectarian violence by the time security forces did take action.

Nevertheless, U.S. and Iraqi leaders were heartened that Iraq's fledgling military held together through a week of bitter clashes that killed hundreds, most of them civilians.

Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites are still too high, though, Abizaid said in an interview at a military airport terminal where he paused on his return from Iraq.

Abizaid and other U.S. military commanders also worry that the violence has hurt efforts to put together a new, broad-based government. The blast came as current Iraqi leaders are being viewed as lame ducks, whose authority to govern and control the security services is dwindling.

Some top American officers in Baghdad fear the blast's true damage could be a hardening of sectarian attitudes among Iraqi politicians negotiating the next prime minister and government. Any unwillingness to compromise could block Washington's hopes for a government that includes all three chief groups Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

"The shrine bombing exposed a lot of sectarian fissures that have been apparent for a while, but it was the first time I've seen it move in a direction that was unhelpful to the political process," Abizaid said.

"It shows that we need a government of national unity to emerge in Iraq. Too many delays in the formation of a national unity government will negatively affect the security situation."
Posted by: Dan Darling 2006-03-05