- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2003

BAGHDAD — The top U.S. military commander in Iraq yesterday blamed an al Qaeda-linked group for some of the attacks on coalition forces in the country and warned that things could temporarily worsen before getting steadily better.

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez raised the prospect of new and even more vicious tactics while coalition forces work to drain the support base of insurgents with increasing local backing.

“We expect that [the insurgents] will get more radical and desperate as they continue to lose support and continue to lose resources,” Gen. Sanchez told reporters at the heavily fortified Baghdad Convention Center.

Attacks have risen in the past few weeks to about 35 a day — up from 20 to 25, he said.

But he said the situation had improved sufficiently for him to lift an 11 p.m.-to-dawn curfew for the month of Ramadan, when Muslims traditionally fast during daylight hours and feast and visit friends late into the night.

In pre-dawn raids north of the capital, Baghdad, yesterday, U.S. forces arrested more than a dozen suspects, including a former major general.

Iraqi insurgents, meanwhile, targeted U.S. troops with ambushes and bombings in the volatile city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, as well as in the northern city of Mosul and near a bustling market in the capital.

No coalition soldiers were killed.

At his briefing, Gen. Sanchez said those arrested included operatives of the radical group Ansar-al-Islam and some “al Qaeda-linked personnel.”

Al Qaeda fighters “continue to operate. We know that they’re here. We know where they’re operating, what areas they’re operating in,” he said.

Ansar’s mountainous headquarters in northeastern Iraq near the Iranian border were devastated by coalition bombing during the war, but later intelligence has shown that many operatives survived and may have been reinforced.

Gen. Sanchez said the coalition was making progress in restoring order but “we need to accelerate it and accomplish it across all lines of operation — economic, political, security.”

While most statues and portraits of Saddam Hussein have been defaced, removed or replaced, reminders of the conflict still abound.

Many government ministries and some telephone exchanges remain as burned-out hulks. One shopping center in the “28 July” district still lies in the crumpled heap created when looters set it ablaze.

On many streets, however, life is improving visibly for ordinary people. The streets are far cleaner than a few weeks ago, and on several roadsides, workers in blue overalls make repairs and lay new drainage.

Freshly painted blue-and-white police cars, each with a distinctive number emblazoned on the side, are a common sight, as are traffic police. Shops are filled with produce, especially fresh fruit, as well as satellite dishes and bicycles.

Most significantly, families ventured onto the streets yesterday even as dusk approached. In previous months, only men would brave the risks of robbery or shootings as darkness neared.

While the streets appear more relaxed, the coalition has reinforced security around key installations. Iraqi workers yesterday were laying fresh razor wire atop the 10-foot-high concrete slabs surrounding the Palestine and Sheraton Hotels.

Power supply has been far more regular in recent weeks, with periods of blackout far shorter than periods of steady electricity.

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