U.S. and Iraqi forces have nearly “cleared” the western Iraqi province of Anbar and Baghdad of al Qaeda terrorists and other insurgent groups, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday.
Mr. Gates stopped short of announcing when control of Anbar would be returned to Iraqi forces during a press conference at the Pentagon, but the Associated Press reported yesterday that Marine Maj. Gen. Walter E. Gaskin said the transfer would be ready by March, adding that violence there dropped significantly.
Under a plan accepted by the Iraqi government, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is the commander of the multinational force in Iraq, the transfer will occur in March, followed by a ceremony in April, Gen. Gaskin told the AP.
Anbar had been considered a stronghold of al Qaeda and was where much of the Sunni Arab insurgency occurred during the first years of the war.
During yesterday’s press conference, Mr. Gates said that in the past year “Iraqi security forces have grown in capability, confidence and size, expanding by more than a 100,000.”
The most recent province to be put back under Iraqi control was Basra, which reverted in December. So far nine of the nation’s 18 provinces are under Iraqi security forces.
Mr. Gates said he “expects this transfer [of provinces] to continue” in the future.
The continuing gains in securing the region “are on track to carry out the reductions that General Petraeus talked about and that the president approved last September” in regard to U.S. troops, Mr. Gates said.
Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi, who appeared with Mr. Gates at the Pentagon, said extensive cooperation between U.S. and Iraqi forces to regain control of the nation have proved successful in driving terrorists out of their former strongholds.
“The American people stood by us and the American government stood by us, so that we can achieve real victory against the terrorists, especially in 2007,” Mr. al-Obeidi said through an interpreter.
He said he thought Anbar could now be transferred into Iraqi control.
“I can say that Anbar province, which was the hottest area of Iraq, does not now need any [U.S.] forces,” Mr. al-Obeidi said, adding that he thinks Iraqis may be capable of taking over security from U.S. troops by 2009.
Mr. Gates was more cautious, saying that work in the region is still not complete and that U.S. forces will continue to work with their Iraqi counterparts to ensure continued progress.
“As significant as the progress has been, the deaths of nine U.S. servicemen announced [Wednesday] is a stark reminder of the work that remains to be done and of the risks that coalition and Iraqi troops take every day,” Mr. Gates said.
He added that, under Mr. al-Obeidi”s leadership, the Iraqi military has played “a crucial, indeed, indispensable role in this effort,” adding that last year’s initiative by the president to increase U.S. forces in Iraq — have aided in reducing violence in Iraq and securing the provinces.
“Security gains from this effort have been notable,” he said. “The number of IED attacks per week has declined by half.”
According to the Department of Defense, high-profile attacks, car bombs and suicide attacks are down 60 percent since March. Civilian deaths are down 75 percent from a year ago.
Iraqi civilian death toll since the war began is estimated to be at 151,000, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report released yesterday. The data were gathered with the cooperation of the Iraqi government and WHO organizers who went door to door conducting surveys of 10,000 homes.
The WHO figures are significantly lower than in the 2006 Johns Hopkins University study, which estimated 600,000 Iraqi deaths since the war began in 2003.