By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 3, 2007 - Coalition and Iraqi forces have "tactical momentum" in the country, but they need to develop "irreversible momentum," Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said today during a Pentagon interview. Odierno, the commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, said coalition and Iraqi forces have made significant progress against al Qaeda in Iraq and are making progress against Shiia extremist groups as well.
"September is the lowest month for incidents we've had going back to January 2006," he said. The numbers of improvised explosive device attacks and car bombings are at the lowest level in 18 months.
For the past three years, the Islamic holy month of Ramadan has been a signal that extremists would launch attacks on coalition and Iraqi government targets. This year, Odierno said the 30 days before Ramadan began on Sept. 13, and the first two weeks of the holy month, have been the least violent of the year.
"That says something about security progress," he said.
The corps commander said that al Qaeda in Iraq has been significantly degraded.
"I believe we are in the pursuit phase with them," he said. "They are still capable of conducting some operations, but their ability to do so is becoming more and more difficult for them."
Iraqi Sunni Muslims have rejected the group, and tribal leaders are reaching out to the Iraqi government to get back into the mainstream of society, the general said.
Al Qaeda is losing militarily and, more importantly, they are losing because of their conduct over the past two years. The terror group has indiscriminately targeted Iraqi civilians and behaved in a Taliban-like way that almost all Iraqis reject, Odierno said.
Shiia militias continue to be a target for coalition and Iraqi forces, he said. The coalition especially is going after those Shiia groups that are Iranian surrogates.
"I think we saw a surge of Iranian support for what I call these Iraqi special groups of the militias in May, June and July," he said. "We've seen a bit of a decrease in August and September, but nothing statistically significant enough to say that Iran has done anything to stop the support for these surrogates. We continue to watch that."
Shiia Imam Muqtada al Sadr made a statement declaring a cease fire last month.
"We welcome that but still don't know what it means," Odierno said.
There has been a separation between the extreme special groups closely tied to Iran, and the Jaysh al Mahdi – the leading Shiia militia group. Odierno said there is a lethal and non-lethal way of dealing with the groups. He said most members of Jaysh al Mahdi can probably be reconciled to the government of Iraq. There have been encouraging signs. Coalition officials met with sheikhs and tribal leaders in Sadr City – the Shiia city east of Baghdad proper. "It's an important first step," he said.
But there are Shiia groups that believe they cannot reconcile and see violence as the only way forward. Most of these are under malign Iranian influence.
"I focus on them not only with special operations force but with conventional forces," he said. "They have a completely different agenda, which is to de-legitimize the government of Iraq."
He said the coalition needs to make it clear to Jaysh al Mahdi that the coalition and Iraqi security forces will continue to go after leaders who think the only way forward is through violence.
The Iraqi security forces continue to make slow and steady progress, Odierno said.
"The Iraqi army is fighting," he said. "Their ability to plan, their ability to target operations is getting better. They have a corps command and control structure in Baghdad that is operating and functioning well – better than I thought it would be when it was set up a year ago."
But what would really accelerate momentum and make it irreversible is closing the gap in providing essential services to Iraqis, Odierno said. The government needs to provide electricity, fuel, food and jobs. The government of Iraq has provided money to the provinces to repair infrastructure and provide jobs. Anbar province, for example, received $207 million from the central government to rebuild.
The general touched on the reduction in U.S. forces from 20 brigades today to 15 by next summer. He said planners in Iraq are looking at the "second, third and fourth order effects of the reduction in forces," and what that means to other forces like military and police transition teams, provincial reconstruction teams and combat support/combat service support units.
There will be military changes throughout Iraq. "We will transition differently across the country," he said. In some areas, coalition forces will still be fighting a counterinsurgency battle. In others, they may be supporting Iraqi forces. In still other areas, there may be no coalition forces at all.
"Where we have the (ethnically) mixed areas – and those tend to be closest to Baghdad, we will probably do counterinsurgency operations for at least the next year or so," he said. "But in other areas we will go to a much heavier training and oversight for security forces."
Odierno used Mosul as an example. It is the second-largest city in Iraq and Iraqi police officers are in control. There is a coalition battalion on the outskirts of Mosul that can provide a quick reaction force and intervene if necessary. This has been the case there for almost six months.