By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 19, 2007 - While al Qaeda in Iraq continues to be the main threat there, military officials are reporting that recent targeted operations by coalition and Iraqi forces, along with attitude shifts by local citizens against the group, are taking a toll on insurgent efforts. In fact, there are indications that some al Qaeda fighters are leaving Iraq because they are dissatisfied with top leadership efforts, Army Maj. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner, deputy chief of staff for strategic effects for Multinational Force Iraq, said in a briefing today.
Others are giving up valuable intelligence once captured, discussing problems with leadership, questioning loyalties and admitting that some are taking money intended to fund fighters, officials said.
Thirteen emirs in the north have been captured or killed in the past four weeks, said Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, commander of Multinational Division North, who also spoke at the briefing. His area includes the cities of Balad, Kirkuk, Tikrit, Mosul, and Samarra.
"As soon as they're captured, they are willing to talk about their organization," he said. "It's interesting to us that the ones we are capturing are willing to talk not only about the organization but about the personalities of other leaders ... and how some of those personalities, in fact, are in it for personal gain as opposed for their (allegiance to the) ideology of al Qaeda."
Bergner rattled off a list of recent operations that netted key leaders in the al Qaeda in Iraq operation, including the capture last week of a terrorist cell leader near Karma who controls more than 300 terrorists.
Also last week, in eastern Rashid, two al Qaeda in Iraq financiers were captured, and this week forces captured a leader for the al Qaeda network north of Baghdad.
"Sustained efforts against (al Qaeda in Iraq) continue to disrupt the organization, even as they attempt to regenerate leadership," Bergner said.
The general heralded the efforts of concerned local citizens and attributed much of the recent success to their cooperation. "The Iraqi people are taking a stand against them (al Qaeda) at the local level, in tribal commitments, and at the national level," Bergner said.
"In many cases, these operations were made possible by local intelligence provided by concerned local citizens in the area. Working in tandem with security forces, concerned local citizens are playing a key role in the decreasing trends of violence and improving stability across Iraq," Bergner said.
There are some 300 concerned local citizen groups with nearly 71,000 Iraqis. Of those, about 21,000 want to serve as part of the Iraqi security forces. The Iraqi government has committed to assuming the fiscal responsibility for the citizens, many of whom are paid by contract, and to move toward integrating them into the security forces, Bergner said. In western Baghdad, 1,500 local citizens are now trained and part of the Iraqi police system, Bergner said. Others are in the process, he added.
In the north, 15,000 citizens want to become part of the groups, but only about 20 percent want to serve in the Iraqi security forces, because they don't want to be moved away from their communities, Hertling said.
Of the 80 weapons cache sites found recently in his area, half came from tips from local concerned citizens, he said. Bergner said the progress of integrating the citizens into the formal security forces is encouraging, but the pace depends on the capacity to train them.
"This isn't one where the metric of progress or the way ahead is really a function of how long it takes. It's really important to note the commitments that have been made and the fact that these individuals at the local level are now being recognized by the national government and being afforded the opportunity to serve as part of the legitimate security forces," Bergner said. "That's what's critical here. And as we move forward, it's sustaining that commitment and helping it be fulfilled, and that's not so much a function of time."
Cooperation among coalition, Iraqi security forces and local groups has yielded some security gains in the north, Hertling reported. He said people are feeling a continued sense of security.
Violence has not dropped in his region as significantly as it has in the Baghdad area. He reported only about a 50 percent drop in the number of bomb explosions since June. Hertling is expecting a slight increase in December because of operations in areas not yet cleared.
"It's not perfect yet. We're still continuing to strive to rid the extremists from our areas," he said. "We still have a hard fight. ... We have not seen the same level of decrease (in violence)."
He attributed the higher violence reports to the fact that insurgents have migrated north to his area as they were run out of Baghdad and Anbar province. But there is more of an opportunity now for people to get back to normalcy, he said.
Local citizens groups have been successful at forming there, sometimes with multiple provinces joining together to form a group.
Hertling highlighted progress in Samarra, where there has been an increase in coalition forces and national and local Iraqi police. "Samarra was a dead city two months ago. It's increasing in shops being opened ... and more activity on the streets," Hertling said.
The commander also had high praise for Iraqi security forces operating in his area. "The Iraqi security forces, especially the Iraqi army, has been substantially improved since the last time I was here a few years ago," he said.
Coalition forces have been including the Iraqi army more into training events, sharing intelligence, and providing aviation and artillery support. "Our four division commanders in our area, ... I would go to war with any one of them on any given day," Hertling said.
Bergner said that, on a national level, Iraqi security forces are increasingly on the first line of defense, suffering casualties two to three times that of coalition forces.
Also, improved security in the region has led to political gains, Bergner said. Representatives from ministries within the Iraqi government held their first meeting of the Joint Rural Planning Committee in Baghdad this week. The officials discussed road projects, agriculture, essential services such as water and sewer projects, education, and the construction of schools.
Also this week, in the Rashid district of Baghdad, a medical summit was held to discuss Iraq's medical capabilities and plans for future requirements and improvements, Bergner said.
"Programs such as the Joint Rural Planning Committees and Rashid Medical Summit would be difficult to carry out were it not for the improving security situation we are seeing throughout Iraq," Bergner said. "Nevertheless, we will continue to face increased violence as a result of (al Qaeda in Iraq) fighting back. But we will continue to keep pressure on the terrorist networks and reduce the prospects of their being able to establish operation bases or safe havens."