WASHINGTON – The forces opposing the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq total no more than 5,000 insurgent fighters, the top American general in the region said Thursday.
Gen. John Abizaid said that despite the relatively small numbers, the insurgent forces have considerable training, funding and supplies.
Abizaid said the largest and most dangerous portion of the opposition forces consists of loyalists of ousted president Saddam Hussein. Foreign fighters also pose a threat and are entering Iraq through porous borders, Abizaid said.
“The goal of the enemy is not to defeat us militarily,” Abizaid said in a news briefing from U.S. Central Command headquarters in Florida. “The goal of the enemy is to break the will of the United States of America, to make us leave.”
Abizaid said the opposition forces can’t drive the U.S.-led coalition out of Iraq through the use of military force. He said the insurgents don’t have much popular support and often hire young, unemployed criminals “to do their dirty work.”
“It is very important that as we progress militarily, we also progress politically and economically, so as to get these angry young men off the streets,” Abizaid said.
American forces have gone on the offensive against the insurgents this week as the attacks have increased in number and lethality. Abizaid said he was confident American forces would prevail.
“I want to emphasize to the people that there is no military threat in Iraq that can drive us out,” Abizaid said. “We have the best-equipped, best-trained army in the world positioned in the most difficult areas we have to deal with … They are confident, they are capable, they know what they are doing.”
More than 100,000 Iraqis now are working as police, border guards, soldiers and militia members, Abizaid said.
“They’re not as well-trained as American and coalition forces yet,” Abizaid said. “The police, in particular, need a lot of work. It’s important for all of us to understand that these Iraqi forces will take some time to train.”
Pentagon leaders have pointed to the increasing number of Iraqi security forces as proof the situation in Iraq is improving. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said this week that Iraqi forces are best suited to gathering information about the opposition forces.
That information-gathering process is key to defeating the insurgents, particularly those loyal to Saddam’s Baath Party, Abizaid said.
“I would say that this group of Baathists, by far, represents the greatest threat to peace and stability, and it is very important to close with that enemy, discover their cellular structure, unravel that threat and remove it,” he said.