By Steven Donald Smith
WASHINGTON, Aug. 22, 2006 – The quick response of Iraqi security forces to terrorist gunmen who opened fire on a large crowd of religious worshipers in Baghdad Aug. 20 demonstrates their improved capabilities, a senior U.S. military officer said today. "This was a tremendous demonstration of the increased capabilities of the Iraq security forces and the leadership of the government of Iraq," Army Major General William B. Caldwell IV, a spokesman for Multinational Force Iraq, told reporters during a Baghdad news briefing.
The Iraqi government has shown its commitment to providing the conditions for citizens to practice religious freedom without persecution or attack, he said. More than 20 Shiite pilgrims were killed and upwards of 300 wounded by gunmen Aug. 20 as they the headed to the shrine of an eighth century imam, Musa al-Kadhim, to commemorate his death. Iraqi security forces quickly responded to these attacks, controlling the situation and killing six of the terrorists and detaining 19 others, Caldwell said.
The terrorists aim to make the Iraqi government look inept and incapable of protecting its people, he said. "However, the Ministry of Interior, ... in coordination with the Ministry of Defense, exercised overall control of the event, coordinated a public awareness campaign and prepared well in advance." The critical task of providing security in Iraq continues, "not only to rid the county of terrorists and insurgents, but to tackle the problem of violent extremists," Caldwell said.
Iraqi and coalition forces continue to pursue people intent on using violence to impose their beliefs on others. For instance, operations by Iraqi and coalition forces over the past week resulted in the capture of more than 100 known and suspected al Qaeda terrorists and associates and multiple weapons caches. "All of these captures have severely disrupted and disorganized the capability of al Qaeda in Iraq," Caldwell said.
The captures also enable Iraqi and coalition forces to better understand the terrorist network and how to best defeat it, he added. Capturing terrorists is only the first step in the process of justice. The Iraqi judicial system has convicted many of the terrorists. "To date, the central criminal court of Iraq has held 1,365 trials of insurgents suspected of anti-Iraq and anti-coalition activities," he said.
There have been 1,171 convictions, with sentences ranging up to death, he said. Iraqi and coalition forces also continue to target death squads. There have been 20 different operations just in the past week conducted specifically against these groups, he said.
Iraqi and coalition forces have been focusing on the most violent Baghdad areas, Caldwell said. In addition, there has been a lot of progress, and economic opportunities are on the rise. "Every day there are additional shops opening. We are cautiously optimistic and encouraged by all the indicators we are seeing," he said. "What we are seeing in these areas is life coming back to some normalcy."