- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Extensive military intelligence has allowed coalition forces to push al Qaeda out of numerous provinces in northern Iraq, but a top commander remained cautious, saying the terrorist group’s ability to re-emerge is constant.

Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, commander of coalition forces in northern Iraq, told reporters yesterday that Operation Iron Harvest, meant to drive al Qaeda out of safe havens, has conducted 40 operations since mid-December with Iraqi security forces. Those operations led to the deaths of more than 130 extremists and the arrests of more than 370 others, including 40 “high-value individuals.”

“It’s also in this area that we have found significant weapons caches and had some very tough fights,” said Gen. Hertling, who spoke to reporters at the Pentagon via satellite from Iraq. “Our soldiers have seen the effects of the enemy’s intimidation of local citizens along with brutal murders and barbaric violence.”

U.S. and Iraqi forces have focused during the past few weeks on an area known as the “Breadbasket,” which comprises about 45 square miles in northeastern Iraq, in an effort to root out al Qaeda militants who have taken refuge in the region since being driven out of Anbar province.

While the rest of Iraq has seen significant decreases in violence over the past six months, the eastern Diyala province is proving difficult for coalition forces.

Yesterday, a suicide bomber detonated near a high school in Diyala’s provincial capital of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Twenty-one persons, including students and one policeman, were wounded in the attack, the Associated Press reported.

The commander added that al Qaeda is receiving help from foreign fighters in the region. Coalition forces have captured extremists from Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco and other neighboring countries since the operation began.

“I wouldn’t want to put a percentage on it though because I think that would allow our enemy to see just how much intel we have on them,” he said.

Last month after coalition operations began in Muqdadiyah, U.S. military officials were informed that some al Qaeda leaders and militants had escaped the operational area but that they have “still seen significant success in these operations in Muqdadiyah,” Gen. Hertling said.

Al Qaeda is facing a backlash, however, from the Iraqi people, who are now assisting coalition forces in locating extremists, he said.

In the town of Shirin, in the northern region, a 12-year-old girl “was brave enough” to sketch a map disclosing the names and locations of terrorists “who were still in the area and who had harassed her and killed two of her brothers,” he added.

“They would come in; they would kill the local citizens; they would cut off their heads; parade heads down the streets of town — very brutal and violent tactics,” the general said. “And what you would see as a result of that is people were afraid to either go to the police or stand up against these people.”



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