By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 11, 2008 - While the security situation in northern Iraq has improved, governors of the four provinces there do not believe it is time for provincial Iraqi control, the coalition commander in the region said. Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling gave a rundown of the situation in the four provinces his Multinational Division North has responsibility for during a Pentagon news conference today. Hertling spoke via teleconference from Forward Operating Base Speicher, in Iraq.
Hertling praised the progress of Iraqi security forces, saying they "have made monumental strides" in capabilities and professionalism. Still, the division and Iraqi allies face seven different fights in the province running from al-Qaida affiliates to gangs.
In Ninevah province, an Iraqi operation continues to target al-Qaida and foreign fighters. Since the operation began in May, "we've seen a sharp decline, not only in attacks but in foreign fighters traversing the western Nineveh deserts," Hertling said. The operation has lead to the death or capture of dozens of mid- and high-level al-Qaida operatives and disrupted the flow of foreign terrorists from Syria through that western Jazirah Desert.
Mosul, the capital of the province, is still a city recovering from extended combat, the general said. "But the population is feeling more secure every day, he said, adding that rebuilding the infrastructure and finding jobs are the number one topics discussed on the streets of the city.
In Ninevah, coalition and Iraqi forces are going after al-Qaida and other extremists who use murder and intimidation to cow the population into supporting them. Success in Mosul has pushed the fight outside the city.
This phenomenon is most apparent in the southern portion of the division's battle space. In Diyala province, Baqouba is becoming more secure, and the Iraqi people have turned against al-Qaida and other extremists. "The Iraqi police and Army are becoming more capable, and the extremists are being pushed into the rural areas because of this," Hertling said.
Al-Qaida is trying to maintain a presence in these rural areas, and coalition and Iraqi forces continue to push into these areas, he said.
"Last week, both Iraqi Army and U.S. military units entered several rural towns where al-Qaida had intimidated farmers for the past few years," Hertling said. "These are places where security forces had not been. There were beheadings -- we knew about those -- and murders and criminal behaviors in these towns in rural Diyala."
Clearing these towns is difficult. In three days, U.S. and Iraqi troopers found 57 roadside bombs along a 1-kilometer stretch of road, he said. One cavalry unit found 25 houses rigged for explosions. The unit also discovered a school "rigged with numerous explosive devices, which could have killed soldiers or, worse, young children," he said.
Female suicide bombers have been a problem in Diyala, and Hertling said he believes they have made progress against such terrorist cells.
The oil-rich province of Kirkuk is making progress but the atmosphere in the region is tense. Kurd leaders see Kirkuk as a Kurdish city, and Kurds in the city have protested against the Iraqi government's election plan. Still, Iraqi police maintain order in the city of Kirkuk with the Iraqi Army maintaining the area outside. Jobs and infrastructure development are important in the province. Hertling said he had just come from a ceremony where 500 members of Sons of Iraq citizens security groups transferred into jobs supporting the growing building industry in Kirkuk.
Salahuddin province is the most peaceful province in the north, but it still has security problems, Hertling said.
He recounted how he had met with the governor of the province. "We were having a conversation about when he would like to have the province turned back over to him, and I gave him a date," Hertling said. "He actually thought later than what I said as the date potentially to turn over Salahuddin province. And they're the ones right now with the least amount of problems with security; they have the least number of attacks of the four provinces (in the north)."
The people want provincial Iraqi control, but they know that "Iraqi security forces and the coalition forces are partnering very well, that there's still work to be done in terms of the economic and the government line of operations," Hertling said.
Northern Iraq is a combat zone today because of successes in other parts of Iraq. The "awakening" movement in Anbar province pushed al-Qaida out of there to the east, and successes against extremists in Baghdad and its environs pushed extremists to the north. "We are the most volatile area in Iraq right now, but we're continuing to pursue [terrorists] so that isn't the case in a few months," he said.