By Sgt. Sara Moore, USA
American Forces Press Service
April 3, 2008 - The recent increase in attacks by Shiia extremists in Iraq gave coalition forces in the center of the country opportunities to target extremist cells and degrade their capabilities, the U.S. general in charge of operations in the area said today. From March 25 to 30, Shiia extremists in the Multinational Division Center area of operations stepped up attacks in conjunction with a spike in violence in Basra and southern Baghdad, Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the division's commander, told reporters in Baghdad. That violence flared after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered Iraqi forces to clamp down on illegal militias, criminals and thugs in Basra. Shiia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi organization contested the Iraqi security forces, and fighting spread north to Baghdad and other Shiia cities in the south.
In the Multinational Division Center area, there were some 78 attacks by Shiia extremists during the six-day period, Lynch said. These attacks targeted coalition forces, Iraqi security forces and Iraqi civilians, and included the use of improvised explosive devices, armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire, he said. One U.S. soldier, 17 Iraqi security forces members and five civilians were killed in the attacks, and many more were wounded.
While these attacks did cause casualties, they also brought a lot of the Shiia extremists out of hiding and gave the coalition and Iraqi forces an opportunity to target them, Lynch said. Division leaders previously had estimated that about 600 Shiia extremists were in their area, making up about 10 so-called "special groups." The increased attacks allowed the coalition to more easily target them, and during the six-day period, coalition and Iraqi forces captured four high-value individuals, killed 69 extremists, wounded five, and detained 537 suspects, he said. The suspects were questioned, and 230 are still in detention.
"The enemy needed his leaders to conduct operations; we took some of those away," Lynch said. "The enemy needed his 'led,' his soldiers if you will, and many of those are now currently detained."
The combined forces also found 18 weapons caches that contained various types of ammunition, bombs and other weapons, Lynch said.
"We experienced a tactical and an operational opportunity to take the fight to the Shiia extremists," Lynch said of the six-day period of increased violence.
Since March 30, attacks in the Multinational Division Center area have gone back to their normal levels, with just one attack occurring yesterday and none the day before, Lynch said. Since taking command of forces in the area 13 months ago, Lynch said, he's seen a significant decrease in violence and an increased focus on rebuilding Iraqi society.
Lynch's soldiers occupy 57 different patrol bases throughout the area with Iraqi security forces, and that presence has helped build trust with the locals, the general said.
"What we have found is the local population, as a result of seeing the patrol base, they come forward and ask two questions," he said. "The first question is, 'Are you staying?' and when the local population is convinced we're going to stay, the next question is, 'How can we help?'"
About 36,000 concerned local citizens are helping to secure their neighborhoods in "Sons of Iraq" security groups in the division's area, Lynch said. And as the violence has decreased, the people have focused more on improving their quality of life, he added.
"Now, when I go to patrol bases ... I immediately leave the patrol base and go visit with the population, talk to the people," he said. "The conversation now has changed. It's no longer about security; it's about jobs. It's about capacity; it's about the economy; it's about local governments."