By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
June 23, 2008 - The number of weekly attacks in Iraq has dropped from about 1,200 a week in June 2007 to about 200 a week now, the commander of the tactical unit responsible for command and control of operations in Iraq said today. Mirroring this reduction in violence has been a 70 percent decrease in roadside-bomb attacks and an 85 percent spike in the number of weapons caches coalition forces have found over the past year, Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, told reporters via satellite from Baghdad at a Pentagon news conference.
"I attribute most of these hard-fought gains in security to a few key factors: our coalition forces aggressively pursuing the enemy, the improving capability of the Iraqi security forces, and the Iraqi people participating in the rebuilding process of Iraq," he said.
But the general tempered his optimism, characterizing security improvements as fragile gains that coalition troops are attempting to solidify as they build the capabilities of their Iraqi counterparts.
"While the improved security is a great achievement, we clearly understand that our progress is fragile, and we continue to work to make this progress irreversible," he said.
The general praised coalition troops for having al-Qaida "on its heels," yet he identified the organization as the "primary threat" remaining in Iraq. The terrorist group yesterday launched an attack in Baqouba that killed at least 15 people, including several police officers, and wounded dozens of others.
"Even though we assess that they are on the run, they are still capable of launching spectacular attacks," Austin said, noting yesterday's bombing in the Diyala province city. "As a result, our operations in the north are focused on defeating their capability to perform these attacks."
Austin cited recent operations in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, as examples of the increasing capabilities and effectiveness of Iraq's security forces. Combined forces in the Ninevah province city over the past four days detained 16 suspects, including four high-ranking al-Qaida operatives.
"We continue to aggressively pursue al-Qaida and to take away their safe havens and to close off all their escape routes when they try to flee," he said.
Austin, who assumed command of Multinational Corps Iraq in February, said coalition forces will continue helping to develop Iraq's national security operators under his leadership.
"I'm absolutely confident, based on the indicators from the last few months, that they'll continue to make significant improvements, and we will be with them, side by side, as they progress," he said.
Though they have made significant progress, Iraqi security forces in many instances are not yet prepared to take over day-to-day operations, thereby allowing coalition troops to assume an overwatch role, the general said.
Before Iraqi forces become autonomous, he said, they need to develop "combat enablers" with the capability of calling in and integrating fire support into formation. They also be capable of supporting themselves logistically, and begin using their own surveillance and reconnaissance to cull intelligence, then plan their own operations, the general said.
"We are working hand in hand with our coalition partners in all parts of the country," he said. "They have improved significantly, but we've been clear about saying that they're not there yet."
As Iraqi security forces mature in the midst of combating al-Qaida and Iranian-backed "special groups," they meanwhile are gaining the support and confidence of Iraqi citizens, the general said. The majority of Iraqis have rescinded allegiance to extremism, he added, praising the efforts of civilian security groups like the "Sons of Iraq."
"Now the overwhelming majority of the population has turned against the insurgents and the criminal," Austin said. "Iraqis understand that al-Qaida and outside influences are not in the best interest of their country."
Dovetailing with Iraqi security forces' rise in public status has been a reduction in the number of people being held in detention. A coalition-led detainee release program has freed roughly 4,000 people who combined forces have deemed nonthreatening.
"[It] demonstrates that the coalition is committed to the welfare of the Iraqi population and to reconciliation," he said.