WASHINGTON - Americans can expect more casualties in Iraq as extremists try to derail the transfer of authority and security responsibilities to a new government, the commander of coalition troops said Wednesday.
"This is going to be a dangerous period that we move toward, there's no doubt about it." said Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command.
"The extremists on either end of the spectrum ... will move very hard to derail this effort," continuing to target American occupiers and the Iraqis working with them.
Abizaid told reporters after his appearance before the House Armed Services Committee that he believes "there is no doubt" that Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was behind a series of suicide bombings Tuesday in Iraq against pilgrims.
"The level of organization and the desire to cause casualties among innocent worshippers is a clear hallmark of the Zarqawi network and we have intelligence that ties Zarqawi to this attack," Abizaid said.
The general was asked by several lawmakers to explain what he expects in the planned June 30 handover of sovereignty to a transitional Iraqi government, how perilous the period might be and whether there is a likelihood the country could dissolve into a civil war as the transition unfolds.
He said "civil war is possible" if there are missteps by Iraqi political leaders or because extremists and outside fighters are trying to foment it.
"While I say it is possible, I do not believe it is probable," Abizaid said. "I think there is a much greater chance that Iraq will emerge through this political process as a stable and modern state."
Abizaid said he is "optimistic that we have a chance, but it is not a 100 percent chance" of success.
Americans must have patience and stay the course in Iraq, where progress toward rebuilding has been "absolutely incredible," Abizaid said in the appearance with Peter Rodman, assistant defense secretary for international affairs.
"The real story is not that there are people trying to derail this process," Rodman said. "The real story is that this process is moving forward regardless."