Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni wondered aloud yesterday how Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld could be caught off guard by the chaos in Iraq that has killed nearly 100 Americans in recent weeks and led to his announcement that 20,000 U.S. troops would be staying there instead of returning home as planned.
"I'm surprised that he is surprised because there was a lot of us who were telling him that it was going to be thus," said Zinni, a Marine for 39 years and the former commander of the U.S. Central Command. "Anyone could know the problems they were going to see. How could they not?"
At a Pentagon news briefing yesterday, Rumsfeld said he could not have estimated how many troops would be killed in the past week.
Zinni made his comments during an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune before giving a speech last night at the University of San Diego's Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice as part of its distinguished lecturer series.
For years Zinni said he cautioned U.S. officials that an Iraq without Saddam Hussein would likely be more dangerous to U.S. interests than one with him because of the ethnic and religious clashes that would be unleashed.
"I think that some heads should roll over Iraq," Zinni said. "I think the president got some bad advice."
Known as the "Warrior Diplomat," Zinni is not a peace activist by nature or training, having led troops in Vietnam, commanded rescue operations in Somalia and directed strikes against Iraq and al Qaeda.
He once commanded the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton.
Out of uniform, Zinni was a troubleshooter for the U.S. government in Africa, Asia and Europe and served as special envoy to the Middle East under the Bush administration for a time before his reservations over the Iraq war and its aftermath caused him to resign and oppose it.
Not even Zinni's resumé could shield him from the accusations that followed.
"I've been called a traitor and a turncoat for mentioning these things," said Zinni, 60. The problems in Iraq are being caused, he said, by poor planning and shortsightedness, such as disbanding the Iraqi army and being unable to provide security.
Zinni said the United States must now rely on the U.N. to pull its "chestnuts out of the fire in Iraq."
"We're betting on the U.N., who we blew off and ridiculed during the run-up to the war," Zinni said. "Now we're back with hat in hand. It would be funny if not for the lives lost."
Several things have to happen to get Iraq back on course, whether the U.N. decides to step in or not, Zinni said.
Improving security for American forces and the Iraqi people is at the top of the list followed closely by helping the working class with economic projects.
But it's not the lack of a comprehensive American plan for Iraq nor the surging violence that has cost allied troops their lives – including about 30 Camp Pendleton Marines – that most concerns Zinni.
"In the end, the Iraqis themselves have to want to rebuild their country more than we do," Zinni said. "But I don't see that right now. I see us doing everything.
"I spent two years in Vietnam, and I've seen this movie before," he said. "They have to be willing to do more or else it is never going to work."
Last night at the Kroc institute during his speech "From the Battlefield to the Negotiating Table: Preventing Deadly Conflict," Zinni detailed the approach he believes the United States should take in the Middle East.
He told an overflow crowd that the United States tries to grapple with individual issues in Middle East instead of seeing them as elements of a broader question.
"We need to step back and get a grand strategy," he said.
© Copyright 2004 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.