By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
June 9, 2008 - U.S. and Iraqi military operations in northern Iraq have cut the number of roadside bombs there nearly in half since February, the commander of Multinational Division North told reporters at a Pentagon briefing today. The number of roadside bombs -- known in military parlance as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs -- discovered in May was 550, compared to 900 in February, Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling told reporters in a teleconference from Camp Striker in Iraq. Coalition troops clear about half the IEDs each month, he said.
Hertling, who also commands the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division, attributed the improved security to increased capability of Iraqi security forces, the contributions of the "Sons of Iraq" citizen security group, and changing attitudes among enemy fighters who are "just tired, quite frankly, of fighting."
Security in areas under MND North's purview -- a region about the size of Pennsylvania -- has improved significantly from six months ago, when northern Iraqi cities such as Hawijah were overrun with insurgents driven out of points south, such as Baghdad, Hertling said. In two offensives launched this spring, significant numbers of top- and mid-level insurgent leaders were killed and captured, allowing coalition gains in Ninevah, Diyala and Kirkuk provinces, he said.
Hertling said he agrees with assessments that the northern city of Mosul is "the last urban stronghold" of al-Qaida in Iraq. But, improvements are being made there, as well, he said. Some 30 outposts have been built there by U.S. engineers since February, and Iraqi forces increasingly are able to secure the area, he said.
"I'll never say anything is last with al-Qaida because you never know what's going to happen to them next," Hertling said.
Coalition forces are focusing more on the desert areas surrounding Mosul, where they believe enemy fighters are fleeing, he said.
Asked about the presence of foreign fighters in Iraq, Hertling said they are from Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Kuwait and enter through the Syrian border in northwestern Iraq. Foreign-fighter facilitators have been found throughout Ninevah, he said. Last week, a Sons of Iraq citizen security unit rejected bribes by smugglers and killed nine foreign fighters at a checkpoint in Salahuddin province, Hertling said.
U.S. and Iraqi officials hope that improved security and a better economy are fostering construction projects and other job opportunities that will give options to people at the lower levels of enemy fighting who aren't so loyal to the cause. In fact, Hertling said, one intelligence estimate predicted that half of lower-level, or third-tier, enemy fighters would quit if they had a job. The unemployment rate in northern Iraq is as high as 80 percent in some areas, he said.
"Many of these guys are doing some of these criminal or terrorist actions just to get paid and to survive," Hertling said. "Some of these guys are just gangs that set out to commit crimes."
The low-level enemy fighters "are the ones that, while we still sometimes have to kill or capture them, the increase in the infrastructure and the ability to provide jobs may cause some additional tipping of this organization in the north, and everywhere else in Iraq," Hertling said.
Many insurgents are tired of fighting and are beginning to realize "that the way you move forward now in Iraq society is thought the representative process and getting your vote ready," Hertling said.
Still, the general acknowledged, an insurgent's suicide attack against police in Kirkuk yesterday was a reminder that enemy fighters will continue to try to intimidate security forces. "The terrorists have gone after those individuals to see if they can break their backbone, and they haven't been able to do it yet," he said.
The biggest challenge coalition forces face in the north is in improving Iraqi police units through recruiting and training, the general said. A recently completed police training center in Diyala province is expected to produce as many as 500 new officers per month, he said.