BAGHDAD, Sept 12 (Reuters) – The commander of U.S. Marines in Iraq denied on Tuesday his troops had lost the vast province they patrol, after newspapers said his intelligence chief had written the grimest report from the field since the war began.
Washington appears to have been jolted by the classified assessment by Colonel Peter Devlin, which describes the failure of the Marines to pacify Anbar province. The vast western desert makes up a third of the country and is considered the Sunni insurgency’s heartland.
The Washington Post reported that officials who have seen the assessment said it described the province as lost. According to the paper, Devlin concluded that Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government holds no sway in the province and the strongest political movement there is now the Iraq branch of al Qaeda.
The Marines’ commander, Major General Richard Zilmer, told reporters in a conference call he agreed with the assessment, but he disputed the dire characterisations of it in the press.
“We are winning this war,” he said. “I have never heard any discussion about the war being lost before this weekend.”
Still, he repeatedly defined his mission in narrow terms — as one primarily concerned with training Iraqi troops and police, not actually pacifying Iraq’s most restive province.
“My mission is to train Iraqi security forces,” he said, adding he believed those efforts would eventually provide an Iraqi force big enough to control the province.
Zilmer’s narrow definition of the mission for U.S. troops in Anbar province comes as the Bush administration describes Iraq as the central front on the U.S. global war on terrorism.
A senior U.S. defense official said Zilmer’s comments should not be interpreted as meaning U.S. troops in Anbar are merely treading water against insurgents while building an Iraqi security force that eventually will have to defeat the rebels.
But the official, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue, described the “main mission” for U.S. forces as “to have the ability to be able to turn over the security responsibilities to a capable police and military force that can operate within the central government and local governments.”
Zilmer’s U.S. Marine-led division and its predecessors in Anbar have faced some of the highest casualty rates in Iraq.
Devlin’s complete report has not been made public. But accounts of it first appeared on Monday in the Washington Post, which quoted one official describing it as the most pessimistic assessment ever filed by a senior officer from Iraq.
According to the New York Times on Tuesday, Devlin wrote that an additional division — some 16,000 more U.S. troops — was needed urgently to back up the 30,000 now in Anbar. The United States has 147,000 troops in Iraq.
Otherwise “there is nothing (the Marine command) can do to influence the motivation of the Sunni to wage an insurgency,” it quoted the assessment as saying.
Zilmer said he had enough troops to carry out his training mission. But he said “the metrics change” were he to be asked to achieve a wider objective.
And sending more Americans to Anbar would “only bring short-term gains to the environment,” he said. The insurgency would end only if locals came to accept the central government.
“Once people have confidence in the government and once people see they have bridges to Baghdad, that is going to be a helpful event that will erode the causes for the insurgency.”
Despite its vast size and long borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Washington stationed only about 20,000 troops in Anbar for much of the three years since Baghdad fell. The numbers were increased this year by an extra few thousand.
The area includes such battlegrounds as Falluja, Ramadi, Haditha and Qaim in the Euphrates valley.