RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – The U.S. military's top commander said Wednesday that he underestimated the extent of the reluctance of the Iraqi people to accept a unified government, and he thought citizens would more quickly embrace the idea of a central government.
"I think that I certainly did not understand the depth of fear that was generated by the decades of Saddam's rule," said Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an interview en route to Saudi Arabia. "I think a lot of Iraqis have been in the wait-and-see mode longer that I thought they would."
The deep divisions within the country's religious sects have triggered deadly attacks, particularly in the more volatile region north of Baghdad, including in Samarra where a sacred mosque was bombed last month.
The sectarian violence has slowed the move to a unified government — a process that U.S. officials have said is critical to the ability of the country to stand on its own, improve its economy and allow U.S. forces to begin more substantial troop withdrawals.
Pace, who spent two days in Pakistan earlier this week, also said the Iraqis need to do a better job recruiting more Sunnis into the army and police force.
He said the U.S. can help by providing computer systems and other aid to help the Iraqis be more efficient in the vetting process they use to weed out people who have acted against other sects.
By integrating Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds into the government and the security forces, people will more easily believe they are part of the process, said Pace.
"A unit that has all Iraqis embedded in it is better able to handle whatever kind of strife comes along," the general added.
In other comments, Pace said he believes that there is a greater chance for diplomacy between longtime rivals Pakistan and India.
After meeting with Pakistani government and military leaders, Pace said the Pakistanis "believe that there is a real opportunity for dialogue now and much less threat of any kind of shooting each other, as has taken place in the past."
He said he does not believe military action is the solution to the tensions between the two countries.
Instead, he was optimistic that diplomacy will prevail.
Pace, who is making his first official trip to Saudi Arabia since becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs late last year, was expected to meet with a number of Royal family members and military leaders throughout the day Wednesday.