By Donna MilesDecember 7, 2007
BAGHDAD (AFPS, Dec. 7, 2007) - Violence in Iraq has dropped significantly in recent months, but it's still too soon to declare the home stretch in U.S. operations here, the commander of Multinational Force Iraq said yesterday.
Gen. David H. Petraeus cited significant security progress during a roundtable with reporters at the Multinational Task Force headquarters at Camp Victory. Following the roundtable discussion, the general spent an hour with visiting Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
Weekly attacks in recent weeks are roughly 60 percent of the levels they were in June, Gen. Petraeus said. High-profile attacks are down 60 percent from their high in March, and attacks overall have dropped during the last seven weeks to levels not seen here consistently since spring 2005.
As a result, fatalities are down, too. Civilian deaths have fallen dramatically to rates not seen since late 2005. And during a year Gen. Petraeus acknowledged has witnessed the most U.S. combat losses since operations first began in Iraq, the figure for November was its lowest in 20 months.
But Gen. Petraeus told reporters it's far too early to talk about turning a corner or seeing light at the end of the tunnel. "Nobody in uniform is doing victory dances in the end zone," he said. "There is much hard work still to be done and that there are numerous difficulties, enemies and issues that still must be addressed."
The challenge, he said, is to continue bringing down violence and building Iraqi security forces to confront it themselves while promoting similar advances on other fronts.
Gen. Petraeus credited the formula that's brought about security progress: More coalition and Iraqi forces -- conventional, special operations and counterterrorism -- are in the fight. They're infusing intelligence to target terrorists, and as they clear al Qaeda strongholds, they're pursuing terrorists who flee to other areas.
"As a result of our combined efforts, we have taken away a number of enemy sanctuaries, killed or captured numerous enemy leaders and rank-and-file members and disrupted enemy networks inside Iraq," Gen. Petraeus said.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi people who have tired of violence are becoming partners in the fight. Gen. Petraeus cited Sunni Arab's widespread rejection of al Qaeda and extremist ideologies. "As a result of this development, we have increasingly received important support and information from citizens in areas that used to be al Qaeda sanctuaries and bases," he said.
Local citizens are committing personally to security in their areas, as well. They're volunteering for the police, army or local citizens groups that are keeping once-violent neighborhood clear of al Qaeda. They're providing tips about terrorist activities and weapons. Gen. Petraeus credited their efforts for nearly doubling the number of weapons caches uncovered.
"We believe the cumulative effect of these finds has gradually degraded our enemy's ability to conduct attacks," Gen. Petraeus said, emphasizing that the capability "certainly still remains."
Gen. Petraeus also cited more aggressive action by Iraq's neighbors, including Syria, to crack down on the flow of foreign fighters across their borders into Iraq. He expressed hope that Iran will live up to the promises its seniors leaders made to their Iraqi counterparts to stop training, funding, arming and directing groups that threaten Iraq's security.
Another promising development is radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's declared ceasefire this summer to rid his Mahdi Army militia of criminals and assassins. "We applaud al-Sadr's action, even as all of us in Iraq, including those in his units, recognize that some elements connected with the militia continue to carry out criminal actions and thus must be dealt with by Iraqi and coalition forces," Gen. Petraeus said.
He said these recent positive trends and factors that have produced them "are changing the context in many parts of Iraq."
But the general conceded that the fight is far from over. "We have to be careful not to get feeling too successful," he said, noting the need for "a continued amount of very tough work."
You "just keep your head down and keep moving," he said, conceding that while officials push for more progress, there will be "setbacks along the way."
"Success in Iraq is not akin to flipping on a light switch," he said. "It emerges slowly and fitfully with reverses as well as advances."
As troops "soldier through" those successes and strive to build on the momentum, Gen. Petraeus expressed hope that Iraqi leaders "will take advantage of the security gains that have been purchased through the sacrifice of Iraqi and coalition forces."
(Donna Miles works for American Forces Press Service)