WASHINGTON, (American Forces Press Service, Nov. 28, 2006) - Terrorists and extremists in Iraq are working to destabilize the country to further their own goals, a coalition spokesman in Iraq said at a news conference today.

This goal drives the horrific attacks on civilians and fuels retaliatory killings in and around Baghdad, Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said, adding that all this is counter to the will of the Iraqi people.

"Al Qaeda, foreign terrorists and extremists do not want to let the Iraqis decide their own future," Caldwell said. "Through two elections and a constitutional referendum, the Iraqi people have demonstrated they want to be a part of this political process and they want to have a representative government."

Saddam Hussein's rule crippled the oil-rich nation. Making the transition from dictatorship to democracy would be tough even without terrorist efforts to derail the process, Caldwell said, but he predicted the will of the Iraqi people will prevail. "Iraqis are creating a country that will replace the rule of the gun with the rule of the law," Caldwell said. "And they will put criminals and killers out of business."

Mortar and car bomb attacks Nov. 23 that killed more than 180 innocent Iraqis and wounded 245 in Sadr City, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood on the east side of Baghdad, reflect the al Qaeda in Iraq strategy in the nation, the general said. "It was indisputably a terrible crime against the Iraqi people," Caldwell said. "The retaliatory attacks we have seen the last couple of days are also."

Terrorists seek to control the Sunni population in the country, Caldwell explained, and they are looking to dominate Baghdad, the military and political center of gravity in Iraq. Al Qaeda kills and intimidates Sunnis who want to work with the elected, representative government. The group also seeks to weaken the Iraqi government and destroy faith in the democratically elected representatives. The terrorists attack the representatives and work to make Iraqis fearful of dealing with their own government.

Al Qaeda's strategy also calls for attacks on Shiite civilians. The attacks in Sadr City are an example of this strategy, Caldwell said. Al Qaeda launches the attacks and counts on illegal militias to launch revenge attacks on Sunnis. This creates division along sectarian lines.

The Iraqis and coalition have made progress against al Qaeda in Iraq, Caldwell said. Since November 2004, Iraqi and coalition forces have killed or captured more than 7,000 al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists, including more than 30 senior-level terrorists who have been captured or killed since July, he said.

Between Nov. 14 and 19, Iraqi and coalition forces conducted a number of targeted raids across Iraq and captured the terrorist emirs of Ramadi, Bakuba, Qaim, Tikrit, Bayji and Baghdad, Caldwell said. The forces also captured two terrorist facilitators, a courier, an explosive expert and a financier. "The detention of these terrorists represents a serious blow against the al Qaeda in Iraq terrorist network," he said.

Iraqi and coalition forces also are working diligently against death squads. Most sectarian attacks in the country are within 30 miles of Baghdad, and Iraqi and coalition forces continue to work against illegal militias. "In the past week, our combined forces conducted 18 operations against sectarian death squads resulting in the detainment of 78 suspected cell members," Caldwell said.

Caldwell said that polls in Iraq show the people want the government to succeed. He said Iraqis are resolved on a unified, secure and prosperous Iraq. "In polling conducted last month, 89 percent of Iraqis nationwide agreed with this statement: 'My first loyalty is to my country rather than my sect, ethnic group or tribe,'" Caldwell said. Only 25 percent of Iraqis said the country would be better off divided along sectarian lines.

Coalition forces continue to work with Iraqi security forces to build their professionalism, Caldwell said. More than 4,000 U.S. servicemembers organized in 430 teams advise the Iraqi army, police and border guards. The teams are necessary "to sustain and develop these forces so they can evolve into a professional security institution," the general said. "They will remain in place long after we have met our goal of training and equipping 325,000 Iraqi security forces."