By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 20, 2007 - The decrease in violence seen in Baghdad's northern and western outskirts has created a sense of stability and fueled economic activity that Iraqis view as a presage to the return of normalcy, a U.S. commander posted in Iraq told Pentagon reporters today. "From a security perspective, there has been significant progress," Army Col. Paul E. Funk, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, told reporters during a satellite-carried news conference.
The 4,000-soldier-strong 1st Brigade has been responsible for security issues in areas north and west of Baghdad since December 2006, Funk said, noting his unit works closely with Iraqi soldiers, police and local Sunni and Shiite volunteers.
Extremist-committed attacks in his sector have sharply dropped since the first of the year, Funk reported.
"We have seen attacks drop from an average of 150 a week in (the) late January and February timeframe, to less than 10 attacks a week," Funk said. "The result has been nothing short of phenomenal. When I walk through the local markets, they are full. Small businesses are erupting everywhere."
The decrease in violence has fostered a feeling of growing civil stability among Iraqis that has encouraged local entrepreneurs to take advantage of economic grants provided by the U.S. military, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other sources, Funk explained.
"A sense of the return of normalcy has caught on, and there has been remarkable progress," the colonel said.
However, the threat of extremist violence remains, Funk cautioned. "We have a long way to go," he said.
Although al Qaeda extremists have been driven out of his area of operations, Funk said they're still plotting to commit "spectacular attacks" against the Iraqi population to create the perception of social chaos as part of their scheme to derail the Iraqi government.
Therefore, extremist attacks in Iraq are likely to continue, Funk said. But over time, the assaults will become "the exception and not the rule," he predicted.
Iraqis of all ethnic and religious backgrounds are heartily tired of insurgent-committed violence and yearn for peace and stability, Funk said, pointing to the burgeoning growth of anti-insurgent volunteers in his sector and other areas of the country.
As stability and confidence grows, Iraqis "no longer talk about security as a prime concern," Funk said, noting that Iraqis also are concerned about services, government and education for their children.
Meanwhile, Funk's troops and their Iraqi security-force partners remain alert to thwart possible extremist incursions. Al Qaeda, he reiterated, has been largely marginalized in his sector.
"We're in the pursuit phase of this operation," Funk said, noting that al Qaeda insurgents "are much more concerned about me now than I am about them."