By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
July 27, 2008 - The security situation in Iraq's northern provinces has improved, but Iraqi and coalition troops will continue to pursue al-Qaida in Iraq and other criminal groups, the U.S. commander in the region said during a briefing in Baghdad today. Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, the commander of Multinational Division – North, told reporters that the number of security incidents in his area of operations has dropped from more than 2,600 in June 2007 to 650 in June 2008. The numbers for July 2008 continue to show a reduction.
Hertling said Iraqi commanders will launch a major offensive against al-Qaida and criminal gangs in Diyala province next month. U.S. forces will launch a concurrent offensive – Operation Iron Pursuit – against al-Qaida in Iraq terrorists who are seeking sanctuary in the desert.
The success of the surge in Baghdad forced al-Qaida in Iraq to move out of the city mostly to the northern provinces of Diyala, Ninewah and Salah ad Din. These areas became the main battlefield as coalition, and increasingly, Iraqi forces hunted down the terrorists and killed or captured them. The cities are now "reasonably secure," Hertling said, and the Iraqi and coalition forces can shift focus to hunting down al-Qaida and its allies outside the cities.
Other indicators also point to progress, Hertling said. The number of roadside bombs declined by 50 percent since February 2008 from 950 to 430.
"That's not to say we still don't have threats," the general said. Suicide vest attacks and car bombs remain a problem in Diyala and the city of Mosul. On July 24, a woman wearing a suicide vest killed eight Iraqis and wounded 30 others in Baquba. Last month another suicide bomber killed Iraqi police and recruits in the city.
The number of Iraqis killed by terrorists wearing suicide vests has been about 250. Car bombs killed a further 1,500.
"These are random, violent acts conducted by these violent terrorists and that's why we are not only continuing to go after those who do these things, but the networks that support them," he said.
Iraqi and coalition forces are continuing Operation Mother of Two Springs in Ninewah and Mosul.
"We are beginning ... Operations Omens of Prosperity ... in Diyala province to begin in early August," he said. While the Iraqi Army will lead the operations, coalition forces will continue to partner with Iraqi forces.
Coalition forces will go after the support zones for al-Qaida in Iraq. "Our message in conducting that operation is we have secured the key cities of the north and we have seen al-Qaida continue to be pushed into the support zones – the areas of the desert – and we will continue to relentlessly pursue them into those areas," Hertling said.
In addition to their own operation, U.S. forces will partner with Iraqi soldiers and police units to provide them enablers: fire support, intelligence, artillery, some logistics, engineers and some aviation, Hertling said.
security is better in the north because of the increased number of Iraqi police and Iraqi Army units, Hertling said. Still the security forces are undermanned and can use more capabilities.
The Iraqi Ground Forces Command has moved a headquarters to the area outside Baquba.
"They will be bringing together in early August the elements of four Iraq Army divisions, some additional Iraqi National Police and they will be linked very closely with police forces in Diyala itself," Hertling said. The Iraqi command is working closely with local Sons of Iraq groups.
This improved security has allowed a greater economic development in the four northern provinces. The markets are open, the roads are being paved and electric lines going up and being repaired. Oil exports are at an all-time high, Hertling said. "This allows for greater political interaction between the government of Iraq and the provinces as they ready for the up-coming vote," he said.
Al-Qaida is not giving up easily, the general said. There are intimidation tactics going on throughout the northern provinces, but especially in Mosul – Iraq's second-largest city. The terrorists have been targeting Iraqi security force, the police and Iraqi intellectuals.
"There are still attacks in Mosul, but they have been greatly reduced," Hertling said. Again, the markets are open, but more needs to be done to improve the employment situation in the region. "The combination of the Iraqi security plan has significantly reduced the attacks and the flow of insurgents into the city," he said. "What needs to happen now is the Iraqi government and the provincial governments is continuing to improve the economic conditions of the city."
And insurgents are increasingly allying with the Iraqi government. "More than 2,100 former insurgents in our area that have turned themselves in and said, 'I don't want to fight anymore, I'm tired of running, I want to be part of the political process,'" Hertling said. "More of that will happen as people see the increasing strength of the Iraqi government."
The upcoming operations will cover an area the size of New Jersey, the general said. "It's hot out there and dusty," he said. "The temperature the last time I was in Baquba was 127 degrees."
Hertling said much remains to be done in the region. "There will be continued operations as long as the Iraqi people are threatened," he said.