WASHINGTON, Nov 18: The top US general in the Middle East said on Saturday that if the world does not find a way to stem the rise of Islamic militancy, it will face a third world war.

Gen John Abizaid compared the rise of militant ideologies, such as the force driving Al Qaeda, to the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s that set the stage for World War Two.

“If we don't have guts enough to confront this ideology today, we'll go through World War Three tomorrow,” Gen Abizaid said in a speech titled `The Long War’, at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, outside Boston.

If not stopped, Gen Abizaid said, extremists would be allowed to `gain an advantage, to gain a safe haven, to develop weapons of mass destruction, to develop a national place from which to operate. And I think that the dangers associated with that are just too great to comprehend’.

Gen Abizaid said the world faces three major hurdles in stabilising the Middle East region: easing Arab-Israeli tensions, stemming the spread of militant extremism, and dealing with Iran.

“Where these three problems come together happens to come in a place known as Iraq,” said the general, who earlier in the week warned Congress against seeking a timeline for withdrawing US troops from the country.

“The sacrifice that is necessary to stabilise Iraq, in my view, must be sustained in order for the region itself to become more resilient,” Gen Abizaid said.

A week after President George Bush's Republicans took a drubbing in congressional elections largely because of voter anger over the Iraq war, Gen Abizaid said the United States had underestimated the challenge of preparing Iraq security forces to stabilise the violent country.

“We thought we could go from US-led to Iraqi-led without having to pay the price of the transition, in terms of manpower and resources, etc.,” Gen Abizaid said. “Now we realise we have to invest heavily in this transition so you can bring them up faster.”

In testimony to congressional committees on Wednesday, Gen Abizaid rejected calls to either boost US troop levels to quell the violence or to start a phased withdrawal from Iraq.

He said the level of violence there was `unacceptably high’, adding the 140,000 US soldiers currently deployed there should focus on training Iraqi units.

Lawmakers from both parties criticised the comments as showing the Pentagon had not developed a new, effective plan for the Iraq situation. —Reuters

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