By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 7, 2008 - Despite the recent drawdown of coalition troops in Iraq, violence levels continue to drop as Iraqi security forces grow in competency and size, a senior coalition spokesman said today during a news conference in Iraq. Throughout the past few weeks, coalition forces have drawn down troop numbers in Iraq. The last of the five original surge brigades, two Marine battalions and an Australian battle group have redeployed without the need for replacements, said Navy Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll.
At the same time, Iraqi forces have grown by more than 148,000 troops, and the Sunni Muslim "Sons of Iraq" citizen security groups are more than 100,000 members strong, Driscoll said.
"This [Iraqi forces surge] explains how we can continue to see very low levels of violence even though [coalition forces] have taken away a lot of combat power based," he said.
Recent Iraqi-led operations in Basra have allowed the local citizens to regain control of their city. The operations drove the insurgency -- mostly Iranian-backed "Special Groups" criminal -- either into hiding or into Iran for sanctuary, the admiral said.
"The operations in Basra really instituted the rule of law there," Driscoll said. "The people there are able to live freely again without intimidation and extortion by militias."
The operations were also a great success for the Iraqi government and prime minister. Individuals who once saw Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as a leader partial a certain sect, now proclaim him as a nationalist, a leader for the people of Iraq, he said.
Recent operations in Amarah and Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood saw similar success by Iraqi security forces and local Sons of Iraq. Iranian-backed Special Groups and militia gangs were forced from the cities, reportedly to Iran to find refuge, he said.
Coalition and Iraqi forces in Diyala province and Mosul, however, are fighting a "more determined enemy," he said. Iraqi forces recently launched a large-scale operation against al-Qaida in Mosul but were unsuccessful.
Mosul is a key territory for al-Qaida because of its location along the Syrian border, which is an important line of communication and an infiltration route into Iraq. Al-Qaida is determined to maintain its foothold, he said.
"What you saw and what you're seeing now in Mosul and Diyala is a more determined enemy in terms of holding ground," he explained. "Al-Qaida still remains a lethal threat."
Despite al-Qaida's perseverance, Driscoll said, the terrorist group isn't as influential as it once was. Less than two years ago, it was a powerful group on the brink of causing a civil war in Iraq, he said.
But today, al-Qaida doesn't hold any territory or city. The group's fighters still have "pocket areas" in Diyala, Mosul and Anbar, but Iraqi security forces and coalition forces are very aggressively targeting to eliminate them, he added.
"Al-Qaida is still a viable threat, and it's not so much they've given up," Driscoll said. "The coalition, Iraqi security forces and political process [have] made it much harder to for al-Qaida to operate in Iraq."
As Iraqi security forces develop into a national defense force, coalition forces continue to develop the Iraqis' counterinsurgency force within in the Iraqi army, which is showing much-improved capabilities, he said.
"The Iraqis are really developing and have come a long way," Driscoll said. "It takes a while to develop the kind of leadership they've shown. We're focusing on that key leadership and bolstering them so we have a vibrant and successful counterinsurgency force."