By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
July 24, 2008 - Al-Qaida terrorists have been largely marginalized in Iraq's Babil province, thanks to the joint efforts of Iraqi and U.S. security forces, as well as local "Sons of Iraq" citizen security groups, a senior U.S. military officer posted in Iraq said today. "The organization related to al-Qaida is severely disrupted, ... as well as the [extremist] militia" in Babil province," Army Col. Tom James, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team, said during a satellite-carried news conference with Pentagon reporters.
"Overall, we are extremely optimistic about the security situation in Babil province, because of the professional actions of the Iraqi security forces and the population's strong desire for peace and stability," James said.
About 1.2 million people live in Babil province, located about 50 kilometers south of Baghdad, James said. Babil's population is about 70 percent Shiia Muslim and 30 percent Sunni Muslim. Hillah is the provincial capital.
The improved security, he said, "will stimulate positive governance and economic growth for the future, and eventually will result in irreversible, sustainable security."
James complimented his soldiers' ability "to adapt rapidly to extremely complex situations," and he also saluted Iraqi soldiers' ability to adjust to conditions.
The last of the U.S.-provided surge forces recently departed Iraq, but improved Iraqi security forces are picking up the slack, James said. With the departure of the surge troops, "Iraqi security forces are at a [capability] level to be able to handle that," he added.
The improved security is driving reconstruction and economic progress, James said, noting that 186 Iraqi-government-sponsored economic programs are under way in the province.
U.S. and Iraqi forces are helping Iraqi government officials prepare for provincial elections slated for later in the year. Twenty-three Iraqi voter registration sites have been set up in Babil province, James noted.
James was accompanied at the news conference by Brig. Gen. Abdul Amir, commander of 31st Brigade, 8th Iraqi Army Division. The U.S. and Iraqi soldiers work together, along with Iraqi police and Sons of Iraq members, to conduct aggressive security operations across Babil province, James said.
Working in tandem, U.S. and Iraqi security forces "were able to disable all these [al-Qaida] cells and enemies," Amir said. Most of the al-Qaida leaders in his area of operations, he said, are now in detention.
Today, in northern Babil province, "there is no threat from al-Qaida" or extremist militia, Amir asserted.
The reduced incidence of al-Qaida attacks, especially those in the form of improvised explosive devices, enables U.S.-supported Iraqi security forces to focus resources to quickly disrupt enemy activity, James said. Al-Qaida's weakened state in Babil province "is obvious to us, based on their ability to deliver an effective IED" attack, he explained.
Previously, the colonel explained, al-Qaida operatives in the province typically deployed suicide-vest bombers and used deeply buried IEDs.
"We're not seeing those any more," James said. Explosive devices now employed by al-Qaida in his area of operations, he said, are "much more primitive and much less effective."
The few remaining al-Qaida agents in Babil province are attempting to use their waning power to target Sons of Iraq leadership, with little effect, James said.
"That's the primary threat that we've seen over the last couple of weeks," James said.
Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces, he said, continue to zero in on remaining al-Qaida elements in the province. James saluted the security contributions provided by Iraqi soldiers, police and Sons of Iraq members.
"I am honored to serve with the Iraqi security forces; they are true patriots, and we have built relationships that will last a lifetime," James said. "I thank them and their families and the people of Iraq for their sacrifices in pursuit of a safe and secure country, so that democracy and freedom can flourish.
"I would also like to thank the American people," James continued, "especially the families of our servicemen and women, for their sacrifices and their support as well, as we're forward-deployed here."
The colonel also saluted "our servicemen and women for their contribution to freedom and those that have paid the ultimate sacrifice on the field of battle, and that is both, Iraqi Army as well as coalition-force and U.S. forces, that have fought hand in hand to make Iraq a secure place."
In turn, Amir expressed his gratitude for U.S. military help in ridding his country of terrorists and insurgents.
"I send my greeting to all the families of the 4th Brigade soldiers who are sacrificing with their lives ... for helping us to reform and rebuild our armed forces," the Iraqi general said.
"And, I am hoping that they will go home safely and see their families," Amir said.