By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 22, 2008 - Violence in Iraq – even in the midst of the holy month of Ramadan, which has seen increases in violence in the past – continues its downward trend, the commander of coalition ground forces in Iraq said today. Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, Multinational Corps Iraq commander, spoke to Pentagon reporters via teleconference from his headquarters in Baghdad.
Austin charted the continued progress in Iraq. "We've experienced continued low levels of violence, with 15 of the last 16 weeks remaining below the 200-attacks-per-week mark," he said. "In Baghdad, ... we've averaged less than four attacks per day for the last 13 weeks."
He said this level of violence would have been unthinkable a year ago. Anbar province – once the home of al-Qaida in Iraq – transferred to Iraqi provincial control, and the trends of violence continue down, the general told reporters.
It's notable that the decrease has continued during Ramadan, Austin said. "We did see a small spike in attacks over the weekend," he acknowledged, "but I can tell you that even with the spike, we are well below what we saw last year and the year before that."
While events are moving in a positive direction, there remains much to do, he said. "The environment here ... can change rapidly, and so we have to guard against things that could change our course," the general said.
Coalition and Iraqi forces continue offensive operations against Sunni and Shiia extremists. Operations in Diyala and Ninevah provinces are paying off, he said, with attacks dropping in both places and the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq dropping. Al-Qaida in Iraq is in disarray in the north of the country, Austin said, but still maintains the capability to launch high-profile attacks.
"We remain committed to continuing to provide security for the Iraqi people," he said.
Coalition and Iraqi forces also have been successful against Iranian-backed militias military officials call "special groups criminals" in the south, Austin said. "We've isolated them from the population, and we've dealt considerable blows to their network of lethal accelerants," he said.
He said coalition and Iraqi forces have uncovered arms caches with thousands of pounds of explosives and thousands of parts for explosively formed projectiles, the military term for roadside bombs and rocket-delivered weapons specifically designed to pierce armor-hulled vehicles. This has saved countless lives in Iraq and helped to ensure security in Baghdad and Shiia neighborhoods throughout Iraq, Austin said.
Iraqi security forces are increasing their capabilities and numbers. "They're increasingly in the lead, and they are getting more and more proficient with each operation," the general said. The Iraqi command planned the Diyala operation, he noted, adding that it was done in a professional manner and is being carried through well.
Still, the general said, Iraqi forces are not yet ready to take over full security of the country.
"This is not surprising, because they've been growing and training the force while they've been engaged with the enemy in places from Basra from Mosul," he said. "The Iraqi army is much farther along than the Iraqi police, but they still need enablers such as close-air support, combat engineers, intelligence and surveillance and battlefield medical support."
The coalition will continue to work to train the Iraqi police, he said.
"As the police professionalize and improve their capability, the Iraqi army will be able to focus more on security tasks outside of the cities," Austin said. "As the border forces continue to improve, security within Iraq will continue to further improve as well. This is the direction that we're headed in, and it will take some time to accomplish this."
Austin said the Iraqi government taking over responsibility next month for 54,000 members of the "Sons of Iraq" citizen security groups, whose salaries up to now had been paid by coalition funds, is an important step forward for the country.
"The Sons of Iraq have paid a heavy price fighting al-Qaida and other insurgent groups, and it's important that the government of Iraq responsibly transition them into meaningful employment," the general said, adding that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has assured him that the government will help those who helped the people of Iraq.
Coalition officials are working closely with the Iraqi government to ensure a smooth transition. Ultimately, some 20 percent of the Sons of Iraq will transfer to some security force. The rest will transfer to public- or private-sector jobs.
"We will not abandon the Sons of Iraq," Austin said. "We'll continue to follow up in the future to ensure that they get paid and that they do, in fact, transition to meaningful employment. This is a significant opportunity for the government to demonstrate to the Iraqi people and to the rest of the world that it is serious about reconciliation and about honoring its ... promise to the Sons of Iraq."