- Troops serving in and near the Middle East might want
to start getting used to the scenery.
- Lawmakers and top military commanders say 2005 could
well be a pivotal year in the history of the unsettled region.
- And they say the continued presence of tens of the thousands
of American troops is helping to create an atmosphere of stability and
U.S. commitment ó so much so that there is even growing talk of
troops taking part in any Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
- Sen. John Warner, R-Va., Senate Armed Services Committee
chairman, renewed his longstanding call for NATO and U.S. troops to take
part in an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
- The death in November of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
has set the stage for renewed movement in the creation of a Palestinian
state. And Warner said a NATO force with strong U.S. participation would
be viewed as evenhanded in the volatile region because many of NATO's European
allies have strong ties to Palestinian Arabs while the United States is
viewed as a strong backer of Israel.
- Marine Corps Gen. James Jones, NATO's top commander in
Europe, said he's heard growing informal discussions at senior diplomatic
levels in recent weeks about a possible NATO force for an Israeli-Palestinian
- "When things get talked about at that level, my
ears pick up," Jones said at a March 1 Senate Armed Services Committee
- At the hearing, Jones also told Warner he has been given
"no additional task" to plan for a possible Israel peacekeeping
mission. Still, the informal talk is reminiscent of discussion he heard
in early 2003 that led to NATO participation in the Afghanistan mission,
- Iraq's Jan. 30 elections appear to have set the tone
for growing movements of political reform throughout the region, Army Gen.
John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, said at the hearing, adding
that 2005 "can be a decisive year for us," an assessment echoed
by several senior senators.
- However, Abizaid cautioned that "nothing in the
Middle East moves in a straight line" and that numerous setbacks could
- "As optimistic as I am, and as revolutionary as
the times may be, we should not underestimate our enemies in the region,"
he said. "There is fighting ahead. We should not kid ourselves."
- The performance of Iraqi security forces during the elections
"provided a glimpse of how good they can be," Abizaid said, but
the Iraqis must make significant progress in creating lines of communication
and control between their new government and the military.
- U.S. troop levels in Iraq peaked at more than 159,000
in late January, about 20,000 above pre-election levels. Abizaid said a
massive U.S. unit rotation is underway that will reduce U.S. combat power
by mid-March from 20 brigades to 17 brigades. But he was hesitant to commit
to a timeline for further reductions.