By Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg
Special to American Forces Press Service
May 19, 2008 - More normalcy returns to northern Iraq every day, even as Iraqi and coalition forces continue to hunt down extremist groups, a senior military official said May 16. Many areas in the region -- which stretches from Baghdad to Iraq's border with Syria and Turkey -- continue to show signs of a return to normal life for the people who live there, Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, who commands Multinational Division North and the Army's 1st Armored Division, told online journalists and "bloggers" in a conference call.
In Iraq's Diyala province, for example, very little enemy activity has been going on for more than 45 days, the general said. "I think that is a direct result of our continued pursuit operations in some of the outer boundaries in the main areas of that province," the general explained.
Al-Qaida in Iraq is the main enemy in Diyala province, Hertling said, while in Kirkuk and Salahuddin provinces, Iraqi and coalition forces are pursuing a variety of enemies -- not only al-Qaida in Iraq, but also Ansar al-Sunnah and other extremist groups.
Hertling noted the region's diverse population in explaining the challenges his soldiers face in their area of operations.
"In northern Iraq, we have 136 different tribes that we have counted. We have seven different religions, ... and three different sects of Shiia, Kurds and Sunnis, plus we have Turkomans and the mix of Turkoman Shiia, Turkoman Sunni and Turkoman Kurd," he said. "It is a very diverse cultural mix up here in the north, very different [from] Anbar, which is the Sunni heartland, with one tribal base down there."
The Iraqi government has shifted its efforts in Minaya province, the general said. "We've continued to prepare with our Iraqi security partner counterparts, ... specifically [in] the city of Mosul, and since the 10th of May there's been an operation led by the Iraqis, supported by our forces, called Operation Lion's Roar," he said.
Hertling added that he and his Iraqi partner, Lt. Gen. Riyadh Jalal Tawfiq, commander of Ninewah Operations Command, began preparing for this operation in February.
"They rounded up about 800 targeted individuals. There have been a lot of [weapons] cache finds; the significant activities in Mosul have been significantly reduced," Hertling said. He described some of those captured in Mosul as "Tier 1" al-Qaida in Iraq leaders.
Hertling said he's encouraged by the successes in Mosul and the degree to which the credit belongs to Iraq's own troops. "The Iraqi security forces are doing independent operations, and we're supporting them," he said, noting that their knowledge of the area and its people are a key element in their success. Having seen the earliest days of today's Iraqi military, Hertling said, he's impressed by how far they've come.
"The capability of the Iraqi army, especially since the last time I was here, since 2003-2004 when they were first standing up, has been significantly improved," he said. "They are gradually improving their capability and their effectiveness."
And as Iraqi and American forces continue to track enemy fighters in the northern region, they are finding out that many people carrying out attacks in the region do so for financial gain in struggling economy, not because they hold extremist views.
"About 50 percent of the people conducting attacks are not conducting attacks because they believe in the ideology; they're conducting the attacks because they're being paid by these groups, and the unemployment is so off the charts over here that this is the only way some of these guys can feed their children," Hertling explained. "One of the points we continue to make with the prime minister is that we have to continue to get jobs for people."
(Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg works for the Defense Media Activity.)