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Iraq Transition

U.S. commander: No civil war in Iraq

Story Highlights

• "Zealots" fuel Iraq violence, the new Central Command leader says
• Adm. William J. Fallon: "Law and order" needed to stablize Iraq government
• Fallon assumed Central Command leadership on March 16
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraq isn't engulfed in a civil war, and there are signs of hope outside strife-torn Baghdad, the new leader of U.S. Central Command says.

But the country needs "more pervasive security" -- as well as a more efficient and responsive government -- before the United States starts withdrawing troops, says Adm. William J. Fallon, whose command is based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, and covers the Middle East, central Asia and eastern Africa.

Fallon, interviewed by CNN's Kyra Phillips, stresses that security in Iraq is clearly the biggest challenge for the nascent government and the U.S.-led coalition.

Fallon says there can be no Iraqi confidence in the new governmental system without strides in keeping the peace. If law and order can't be implemented, he says, "we're not going to be able to get there."

Fallon echoes the view articulated earlier this month by his commander on the ground in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.

"As citizens feel safer, conditions will be set for the resumption and improvement of basic services," which are necessary for stability, Petraeus said March 8.

Fallon says he doesn't expect U.S. troops to be mired down in Iraq for decades. And he doesn't foresee the development of a government that is a "mirror image" of the U.S. political system. (Watch commander on when U.S. troops might come home Video)

The admiral, who replaced Gen. John Abizaid on March 16, says Iraqis desperately want peace, a fact borne out by many informal discussions with citizens when he walked along Iraqi streets Monday.

"All they said was they want more security. They want to get out on the streets and do things," he says.

But they have to want it enough "to do everything they can to help us identify those who don't abide by rules of justice." (Watch why Fallon finds security to be top challenge Video)

Fallon says he doesn't think Iraq is in a civil war.

A Pentagon report this month said some elements of the Iraq conflict fit the definition of civil war, but the term "does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict."

He says there are places in Iraq that aren't besieged by violence and are, in contrast to Baghdad, booming and prosperous -- such as Irbil in the Kurdish region in northern Iraq -- and there are other areas that are relatively quiet.

He says that reconstruction strides are successful in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, and places such as Falluja, where he says 200,000 people have returned after fighting subsided during the past few years.

He characterizes the Iraqi conflict as being driven by "small factions fighting each other."

"There are killers still on the loose in this country. I think it's a very small percentage of the population, and the idea that this whole country is at war with one another is absolutely not true. There are zealots here that will stop at nothing," he says.

The Pentagon report said warfare in Iraq has morphed from a "predominantly Sunni-led insurgency against foreign occupation to a struggle for the division of political and economic influence among sectarian groups and organized criminal activity."

The war has been characterized by fighting between the majority Shiite Muslim sect and the minority Sunni Muslims, who were in power under Saddam Hussein's regime.

On Iran's role in Iraq, Fallon says the Shiite nation is backing Iraq's Shiite militias.

When he was asked, "What are you going to do about Iran?" Fallon says, "The question is what is Iran going to do about its behavior." (Watch Fallon explain how Iran is "unhelpful" Video)

Before taking over at Central Command, Fallon led U.S. Pacific Command at Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii. He is the first Navy admiral to lead Central Command.

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