By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
April 23, 2008 - The commander of Multinational Corps Iraq said today he is "absolutely encouraged" by the progress he has seen during his first two and a half months in the country. In his first news conference as Multinational Corps Iraq commander, Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III told reporters in Baghdad today that Iraqi forces are standing up to the country's enemies and said Iraqi security forces are in control of Basra.
Austin reminded reporters that Iraq has seen a 60 percent drop in violence from the summer of 2007. "While this change is significant, we understand our progress is fragile," he said. "Our major objectives remain securing the population, developing the Iraqi security forces, expanding civil capacity and helping the Iraqi government to extend civil services throughout the country."
These are not independent efforts, he said. The goals must be synchronized across the spectrum of activity.
Austin specifically spoke about his impressions of operations in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul, Iraq's three largest cities. Baghdad has always been regarded as the center of gravity in the country, he said.
In the Iraqi capital, coalition units partner with Iraqi army and police units. Both are operating against Sunni extremists, Iranian-backed Shiia "special groups" and criminal elements that threaten the fragile progress in the city.
"The Iraqi security forces and coalition forces are aggressively pursuing these criminal elements that are launching rockets against the seat of the Iraqi government located in the International Zone," Austin said.
Coalition forces pinpointed the launching point for the mortar and missile attacks as being in and around Sadr City, the Shiia-dominated eastern portion of the city. "Iraqi security forces are determined to eliminate the criminal threat," he said.
The general contrasted the approach of these criminal and extremist groups with that of the coalition and Iraqi forces. "While our forces attack confirmed criminals using very precise techniques, these criminals haphazardly launch rockets that indiscriminately kill innocent civilians and destroy private property," Austin said. "They have demonstrated that they are a threat to the population."
Iraqis living in Sadr City are tired of the violence, he said. The coalition and Iraqi goals in Sadr City, he said, are to eliminate the criminal element, to enforce the rule of law and to improve the citizens' quality of life. "The special groups criminals who continue to hurt the people with their violence and irresponsible and violent actions must be brought to justice," Austin said.
Iraqi government-led operations in Basra point to a much-improved Iraqi security force, the general said. "While they do not have all the components to be self-sustaining, they have improved considerably from where they were just a year ago," he said. "They are in control of the city, which is allowing humanitarian assistance to reach the citizens. Iraqi security forces are taking the fight to these criminals, and I'm very optimistic of what I've seen first-hand in my visits down there."
Al-Qaida continues to be the major problem in and around Mosul, Austin said. The actions of the coalition surge pushed al-Qaida out of Baghdad, and the terrorist group is attempting to regroup and consolidate in the north.
"We've seen al-Qaida alienate itself from the population because of their extreme and brutal methods," he said. "They know that they have lost the support of the people. However, al-Qaida remains our primary security threat because of their potential for high-profile attacks."
Coalition and Iraqi forces have relentlessly attacked al-Qaida in the north. "We will continue to pursue them, and they will not regain any ground that they have given up in the past months," Austin said.
Overall, coalition forces will work to expand the reach of the Iraqi government by leveraging the capabilities of provincial reconstruction teams. Coalition forces will also work to improve the logistics capabilities of Iraqi security forces.
Austin said he sees a tremendous amount of potential for the Iraqi security forces. "They continue to operate in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul as well as many other areas of the country, and they are fighting very hard to provide security," he said.