By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
July 19, 2007 – Al Qaeda no longer has sanctuary in any major region of Iraq, only a month after the surge of operations began there, a top commander in the region said today. This comes after coalition forces recently secured the city of Baqubah, the capital city of the former insurgent-stronghold Diyala province, said Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq.
"With Baqubah's liberation, I can think of no major population center in Iraq that is an al Qaeda safe haven today," the general said, speaking to Pentagon reporters via satellite from Iraq.
Odierno attributed the surge's successes to three factors: forces denying sanctuary to insurgents; Iraqi security forces growing in size and capabilities; and a recent wave of tribal leaders agreeing to side with coalition forces to drive al Qaeda and other rogue insurgent groups out.
"The Iraqi people are clearly rejecting the Taliban-like mentality that offers no hope to Iraqis or their families," Odierno said.
More than half of Baghdad is now under the control of coalition or Iraqi security forces, he said.
"The key difference of our ongoing operations is that we are not giving up any of the hard-fought gains," Odierno said. "We are staying until the Iraqi security forces have the ability to control that battle space. We are working extremely hard with the government of Iraq to establish locally recruited police as well as coordinating with the Iraqi army to ensure long-term stability."
Odierno said Iraqis are gaining confidence in their own forces and the success of the surge. This has caused many tribes, who once fought against the coalition, to switch sides to help drive out al Qaeda. Odierno said commanders on the ground have been able to make cease-fire agreements with tribes and even mainstream some of them into local security forces.
"Our engagement efforts with groups who were once adversaries are about getting them to point their weapons at al Qaeda and other extremists," the commander said. "We are ready and willing to engage with key leaders of any groups opposing (al Qaeda in Iraq) or other extremist groups that want to work in cooperation with the coalition, Iraqi security forces, but most importantly with the government of Iraq."
Violence has sharply declined in many regions because of the agreements with local tribes, Odierno said. He noted that Ramadi, "once the al Qaeda capital of Iraq," averages less than one attack daily, down from 30 daily only six months ago.
Odierno cited similar successes in Abu Ghraib, Taji, and the Baghdad neighborhood of Amiriyah.
Tips on insurgents, weapons caches and emplaced bombs are now coming in record numbers, he said. To date, nearly 600 weapons caches, 1,300 improvised explosive devices, 25 car bombs and eight bomb-making factories have been found and destroyed.
More than 175 "high-value" suspects were killed or captured, along with a handful of top terrorist leaders in the country. Odierno said they are taking out insurgents so quickly that al Qaeda is having trouble keeping up with replacements, because those left in the network are unwilling or uneducated.
The increase in operations is seasoning Iraqi security forces, improving their skills and demonstrating their willingness to fight, he said.
"They have greatly improved their tactical proficiency and have placed more effective command-and-control structures in place," Odierno said.
Special operations forces are operating alongside coalition forces. And in Mosul, Tal Afar and Kirkuk, the Iraqi security forces are in charge and executing independent operations with only coalition force oversight. Seven of Iraq's 18 provinces are responsible for their own security, and commanders hope to bring eight more to that level by the end of the year, Odierno said.
In addition, despite taking casualties at three times the rate of coalition forces, Iraqi recruiting continues to be strong, and manning of the units continues to increase, Odierno said.
In the national police, about 75 percent of the leaders have been replaced since last year, and Iraqis have been arresting their own who demonstrate sectarian division.
"Professionalism, discipline and esprit de corps continue to improve. Their ability to conduct independent operations increases and continues to be done across the country," Odierno said.
Meanwhile, formerly displaced Iraqis are now returning home more confident in their safety, he said.
"Hundreds of extremists are no longer available to terrorize the innocent people, and thousands of Iraqis are better off today than they were just a month ago," Odierno said.