Friday, March 3, 2006

The top U.S. commander in Iraq yesterday declared an end to a 10-day wave of sectarian violence that killed an estimated 350 civilians, asserting that many reports of violence were “exaggerated.”

“It appears that the crisis has passed,” said Army Gen. George Casey, giving a detailed public report card. “But we all should be clear that Iraqis remain under threat of terrorist attacks by those who will stop at nothing to undermine the formation of this constitutionally elected government. … They tried to have this [be] the straw that broke the camel’s back, and it failed.”

Gen. Casey gave mixed reviews of the performance of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) that handled the bulk of street patrols and crowd control. This latest test will be a gauge by which to decide whether the ISF is maturing fast enough to allow thousands of American troops to come home later this year.

Asked how the violence will affect monthly analysis of troop needs, Gen. Casey said, “We’ll see how this plays out over the coming weeks and months.”

He also said the number of violent incidents turned out to be lower than press and security forces reported in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of the revered Shi’ite Askariya mosque in Samarra, north of Baghdad. Gen. Casey said that in a reported 30 attacks on mosques, only two were severely damaged. Of eight mosques that were reported damaged, inspections showed only one had damage — a broken window.

“The overall levels of violence did not increase substantially as a result of the bombing,” he said in a statement that seems at odds with the 10 days of television footage and commentary. “It took us a few days to sort our way through what we considered in a lot of cases to be exaggerated reports.”

During the 10-day period, there were 20 demonstrations of 1,000 Iraqis or more.

“They were, by and large, all conducted peacefully with the support of the Iraqi Security Forces,” Gen. Casey told Pentagon reporters via teleconference from Baghdad.

Outlawed militias also sprung into action during the chaos. In some cases, Iraqi police officers allowed Mahdi’s Army militiamen controlled by firebrand cleric Muqtada al Sadr, a Shi’ite, to pass through checkpoints when they should have been stopped.

“This incident and its aftermath has highlighted for the Iraqi government the need to deal with the militia issue in the very near future,” Gen. Casey said.

He said they will not succeed as long as bands of armed militia members are active in Iraq. He said those that qualify need to be brought into the ISF.

“With the right leadership, even if someone has been a member of a militia, they generally respond favorably and work to support the unit’s efforts,” Gen. Casey said.

The militias’ activities during the past 10 days fell far short of uprisings in 2004, when they took over cities in southern Iraq and much of the Sadr City slum in Baghdad. In one instance, an Iraqi general persuaded a group of Mahdi’s Army members to end their siege of a Sunni mosque — without a shot being fired.

Asked if civil war could break out, Gen. Casey said, “Anything can happen.” However, the four-star general added: “The vast majority of the Iraqi people remain committed to forming a government of national unity.”

The Iraqi Interior Ministry has not said who it thinks bombed the Samarra mosque, but Gen. Casey said it was probably al Qaeda or an al Qaeda-linked organization.

Despite the sectarian violence, the number of suicide bombers in Iraqi in February stood at 17, about half the total in January. Last summer, there were about 60 per month. Suicide-bomber attacks are the main tactic of al Qaeda in Iraq, the foreign infiltrators whose numbers have declined in the face of tighter border-control measures.

There are about 136,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Gen. Casey has said that number could drop substantially this year. Pentagon officials privately say the number could be 100,000 by year’s end.

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