HILLAH, Iraq - U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, a chief architect of the war, insisted yesterday that the U.S. military is committed to Iraq, and he spoke passionately about the need to bring members of Saddam Hussein's government to justice.
"We're not playing any games with Saddam Hussein," Wolfowitz said, bristling at the suggestion of a local official from the southern city of Karbala that the United States isn't doing everything it can to capture Hussein. "The sooner we catch that bastard - excuse me - the better off everybody will be."
In a country that thrives on rumors, some Iraqis contend that the United States is protecting Hussein because he was a secret U.S. agent.
Wolfowitz's four-day visit to Iraq, an unusually long stay by a high-profile U.S. figure, marked a show of confidence by the No. 2 Pentagon official. Amid a series of attacks on Americans, Wolfowitz traveled under heavy security, with armed Huey helicopters circling over his convoy.
Asked by Iraqi regional leaders about U.S. resolve to remain in Iraq until a government is elected and stability is restored, Wolfowitz said neither an electoral loss by President Bush nor continued attacks on American troops would be likely to drive the U.S.-led occupying force from the country.
"I think the American people are committed to success here as long as they believe that you are committed to success," Wolfowitz told regional leaders.
In a similar vein, the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq issued a strongly upbeat assessment yesterday of the 100 days since American troops seized the capital in April.
"By God, I guarantee you we've made tremendous progress," Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez told reporters at Baghdad's convention center. "We are way ahead of schedule."
In the 24 hours before Sanchez spoke, two U.S. soldiers were killed in attacks by insurgents. That brought the number of U.S. deaths to 149 since the war began March 20, two more than died in combat during the Persian Gulf war in 1991. Sanchez said he expected the attacks - and American deaths - to "continue for a while."
Thirty-five soldiers have died from hostile fire since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations May 1. On Friday afternoon, a soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Fallujah, west of the capital. Early yesterday morning, another soldier died after he was shot while guarding a bank in a Baghdad neighborhood.
The new leader of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, said last week that U.S. forces in Iraq are facing a "classic guerrilla-type war situation."
Sanchez acknowledged the frustrations that many Iraqis have about spotty electricity, lawlessness and the absence of basic public services. But he blamed much of it on "decades of neglect" under Hussein.
"It is truly heartwarming and amazing how far we've come," he said. Asked by reporters why his assessment was so positive in the face of a persistent guerrilla war and a restive population, Sanchez said: "Now look - I spent a year in Kosovo in the aftermath of a war. We were nowhere near the level of progress that has been made in this entire country in 100 days."
In an opening statement, Sanchez said remaining soldiers of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division - the unit that led the assault on Baghdad - would begin returning home in September, a year after many division soldiers arrived in Kuwait to prepare for war. The announcement seemed designed to quell growing disquiet among some division troops frustrated by several delays in their return dates.
In televised interviews last week, some soldiers criticized the Pentagon leadership. Although Army officials have said the soldiers could be punished, Sanchez said he was not aware of any disciplinary actions.
Sanchez's comments came as occupation authorities launched a recruiting drive for a 40,000-member Iraqi army, which is to be formed within two to three years. Hundreds of Iraqi men lined up at recruiting centers in the capital and two other cities to fill out applications. The army is to be trained by a private U.S. company assisted by U.S.-led soldiers.
Until a viable Iraqi government is set up, the new army will remain under the control of coalition commanders, said British Brig. Gen. Jonathon Riley, deputy commander of the occupation forces' Military Assistance Training Team. For now, new units will be provided with only light weapons.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.