TALLAHASSEE - One of President Bush's top Middle East trouble- shooters warned Friday against war with Iraq, saying it would stretch U.S. forces too thin and make unwanted enemies in the volatile region.
Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, the president's special envoy to the Mideast, made some of his strongest comments to date opposing war on Iraq. Speaking to the Economic Club of Florida in Tallahassee, Zinni said a war to bring down Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein would have numerous undesirable side effects and should be low on the nation's list of foreign policy objectives.
``I can give you many more [priorities] before I get to that,'' Zinni said when asked if the United States should move to remove Saddam.
Zinni said the country should instead concentrate on negotiating a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, and on eliminating the Taliban in Afghanistan and the al-Qaida terrorist network that launched the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
``We need to make sure the Taliban and al-Qaida can't come back,'' he said.
Much more important to Mideast stability than Iraq is Iran, Zinni said. Iran has been one of the leading financiers of Islamic terror organizations such as Hezbollah since followers of the Ayatollah Khamenei took American hostages in 1979.
Now, opportunities exist for the United States to encourage a peaceful transition in Iran where young people are increasingly challenging the power of the Islamic theocracy.
Zinni said an Iraqi war would be expensive and would draw down the armed forces' manpower, which is already ``stretched too tight all over the world.''
Worst of all, Zinni said, a war against Iraq would antagonize America's friends in the Middle East.
``We need to quit making enemies that we don't need to make enemies out of,'' he said.
Efforts to get the White House to comment on Zinni's remarks were unsuccessful.
When Zinni commanded the Army's Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, he publicly trashed a plan spawned in the White House to train 200 Iraqi exiles. This group would train another 5,000 men who U.S intelligence forces would insert into southern Iraq. The plan envisioned the small force capturing an air base and triggering massive defections from the Iraqi army.
Zinni derided the plan as ``Bay of Goats,'' a sarcastic reference to the failed U.S.- backed invasion by Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.
Bush administration hawks, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have tried to keep the possibility of war with Iraq at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy.
Zinni took a shot at the hawks, noting their lack of military experience. He ticked off several prominent military men who have expressed reservations about the war: Secretary of State Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser under former President Bush; and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of operations in the Persian Gulf War.
``It's pretty interesting that all the generals see it the same way,'' he said, ``and all the others who have never fired a shot and are hot to go to war see it another way.''
Zinni was picked by Powell late last year to negotiate a cease fire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Any progress Zinni made dissolved when Palestinian terror organizations launched a wave of suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. The attacks in turn brought retaliatory incursions into Palestinian territory by Israeli Defense Forces.
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