- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 18, 2007

The U.S. military is planning “quick-strike raids” aimed at smashing al Qaeda strongholds in the country before bringing some of the forces from the troop buildup home, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq said yesterday.

Faced with increasing violence from insurgents in the less-guarded northern outskirts of the country, U.S. forces will assist Iraqi forces in weeding out insurgents — mainly al Qaeda operatives — bent on destabilizing the region.

“Due to the constant pressure and depletion of their leadership, extremists have been pushed out of many population centers and are on the move, seeking other places to operate within the country,” Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno said at a Pentagon press conference via video from Baghdad.

“As a result, we are now in pursuit of al Qaeda and other extremist elements, and we’ll continue to aggressively target their shrinking areas of influence,” he said. “Over the coming weeks, we plan to conduct quick-strike raids against remaining extremist sanctuaries and staging areas.”

Meanwhile, U.S. forces clashed with Sunni insurgents yesterday, calling in a Hellfire missile strike against fighters staging attacks from a mosque in northern Baghdad.

One American soldier was killed in the fighting. The soldier’s identity was not released pending notification of family.

For Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Sunni insurgency is posing serious problems for Iraq’s fragile government. Mr. al-Maliki traveled to Tikrit yesterday to meet with Sunni tribal leaders in an effort to save his country from continuing bloodshed.

“There is more uniting us than dividing us,” he said. “We do not want to allow al Qaeda and the militias to exist for our coming generations. Fighting terrorism gives us a way to unite.”

Mr. al-Maliki is hoping moderate Sunni leaders will help break the continuing violence by joining the new alliance of moderate Kurds and Shi’ite groups.

The new Shi’ite-Kurdish coalition will retain a majority in parliament — 181 of the 275 seats.

U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington did not immediately signal support for the new political alliance, with a senior diplomat saying its lack of Sunni participation was a significant problem.

But President Jalal Talabani, one of the signers of the new coalition blueprint, appeared puzzled yesterday by the lack of U.S. enthusiasm.

“I don’t hear any American welcome for the new alliance,” he said at a press conference, arguing the U.S.-backed Iraqi constitution was partly to blame for the political paralysis. He apparently was referring to the complicated apportionment of key positions in government and parliament, according to sectarian quotas.

The much-anticipated progress report on Iraq by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and commander Gen. David Petraeus is expected by Congress in less than a month, and military officials say they expect to continue seeing a rise in violence in anticipation of the report.

U.S. military officials have pointed the finger at al Qaeda insurgents in Iraq for the recent attacks. Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, director for operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that extremist groups could be pushing into new areas in northern Iraq after being driven by U.S.-led offensives from strongholds in more-populated regions.

But the recent attacks against the Yazidi villagers — an obscure religious sect — have shown al Qaeda’s continuing intent to destabilize the region, said Shwan Ziad, director of the Washington Kurdish Institute.

Recent reports from the region have stated that Peshmerga — the Kurdish National Army — have been deployed to the villages — located near the Syrian border — in an effort to protect the Kurdish villagers from further attacks.

“I think it essentially means that al Qaeda is attempting to destroy any democratic structure of the Kurdish area,” Mr. Ziad said.

Military officials have calculated that 52 percent of the violence across the country in July was caused by al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents and only 48 percent by Shi’ite extremists . In January those numbers were reversed, he said, Sunnis and al Qaeda accounted for 70 percent of the attacks.

“The effects of our surge operations and reconciliation efforts are beginning to pay off,” Gen. Odierno said.

“Total attacks are on a month-long decline and are at their lowest levels since August of 2006. Attacks against civilians are at a six-month low, IED attacks are at a two-month decline and have a 45 percent found and cleared rate. Civilian murders in Baghdad are down over 51 percent … reaching their lowest levels since just before the Golden Mosque in Samarra was bombed in February of 2006.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.



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