By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
May 27, 2008 - Al-Qaida terrorists in Iraq are being systematically hunted down and given little or no time to regroup as U.S. and Iraqi security forces tighten the noose, senior U.S. and Iraqi military officials said May 25 in Baghdad. Al-Qaida terrorists were ejected from Baghdad and its environs more than a year ago by the surge of U.S. and Iraqi forces, Navy Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll told reporters at a news conference. Driscoll was accompanied by Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mohammed al Askari.
"Recent improvements by the government of Iraq and the growing capability of the Iraqi security forces are improving security" across Iraq, Driscoll said. "Iraqi security forces are in the lead in Basra, Mosul and Sadr City."
Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, the home of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, sprawls across Baghdad's eastern sector. A continuing cease-fire agreement made between Sadr's militia and the Iraqi government has helped dampen violence in the formerly combustible area, where Iraqi security forces are now conducting security patrols.
Overall, Iraq has seen a significant reduction in violence, Driscoll told reporters. "In the past week, security incidents decreased to levels not seen since March of 2004," he said. In fact, insurgent attacks have declined by 70 percent since the surge of forces began in June, the admiral added. Nonetheless, Driscoll predicted "more hard fighting ahead" in Iraq as its citizens increasingly cooperate with government forces in efforts to smoke out terrorists and other criminals.
"As criminals and terrorists flee their hideouts, we continue to uncover large quantities of weapons in residential neighborhoods and public buildings," Driscoll said. Since the beginning of operations in Basra, he noted, Iraqi security forces have collected close to 270 caches of medium- and heavy-caliber ordnance.
Some of the most-lethal weaponry uncovered in Iraq in recent weeks is of Iranian manufacture, Driscoll said.
"Local residents who are tired of the violence and criminal activity are increasingly pointing out where these weapons are hidden," Driscoll said.
Besides Basra, he added, other large weapons caches are being discovered across Baghdad as well as in Mosul, to the north. Many al-Qaida members fled northward to Mosul as the surge took hold.
During a May 24 visit to observe reconstruction projects in the southern-Iraqi city of Najaf, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker avoided saying al-Qaida in Iraq is finished. Crocker did say, however, that al-Qaida in Iraq has "never been closer to defeat than they are now."
"Ambassador Crocker was right in his statement," Askari told reporters. "Al-Qaida in Iraq is being defeated." Citing recent intelligence data, the Iraqi general said al-Qaida is frustrated at its lack of operational success since the surge of forces took hold.
"They say that they cannot carry out the operations and they would like to find another place outside of Iraq," Askari said of information about al-Qaida in Iraq's present state of mind. "And this is due to the security gains and also the development of the Iraqi security forces and the [Iraqi] intelligence."
The citizens of Iraq's Ninevah province have risen up to drive al-Qaida out, Askari observed, which is "just like the people in Anbar [province] did." Any residual al-Qaida safe havens in Ninevah "will be eliminated" over time, he predicted.
Still, Driscoll said, al-Qaida in Iraq "remains a very lethal threat" that is being pressured by U.S. and Iraqi security forces.
"They've been put off-balance, and they're certainly on the run," Driscoll said of al-Qaida's situation in Iraq. "They no longer control large swaths of territory or they don't control cities, but they're still out there."
Al-Qaida in Iraq still is capable of conducting high-profile attacks as part of its desire to incite sectarian strife, Driscoll cautioned.
Driscoll noted that he and Multinational Force Iraq commander Army Gen. David H. Petraeus share the same opinion regarding the current situation in Iraq. Petraeus, who carried out the successful surge strategy, has been selected by President Bush to be the next chief of U.S. Central Command.
"As General Petraeus has said, ... it's too early to pop the champagne bottle and celebrate victory," Driscoll emphasized, noting al-Qaida in Iraq still is active and looking for ways to make an impact.
"If we let up on them, they will come back," Driscoll predicted. "So, it's an ongoing effort."