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General Says Jihadist Groups in North-Central Iraq Are Merging

The Army general in charge of U.S. military operations in north-central Iraq said Friday that while the number of insurgents is declining, the number of attacks remains at the same level as it did before the January election. The general also said Iraqi religious extremists and foreign jihadists are beginning to work together.

Army Major General Joseph Taluto says the number of insurgent attacks in the four provinces under his command have not decreased since the January election, although the types of attacks and the nature of the insurgents is changing.

"Our assessment is that many of the former regime or Sunni Arabs that were opposed to the new government and the new political process have fallen away. I think that has reduced. I think the religious extremists, while they have not, in our view, grown in north-central Iraq, they have coalesced a little bit more with national religious extremists like Ansar El-Sunnah getting involved with QJBR activities," he said.

QJBR is the Arabic acronym for the al-Qaida-affiliated group headed by Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. General Taluto said the extent of the collaboration between the two groups is unclear, although he suspects there is some sharing of information and possibly resources.

According to General Taluto, these two groups, QJBR and Ansar El-Sunnah, are responsible for the spike in suicide bomb attacks in north-central Iraq. He said the number of attacks in these provinces has grown from a monthly average of five to eight attacks per month in the period prior to the January election to 15 attacks per month in May and June. He noted, however, that so far in July there had only been two suicide bomb attacks. Meanwhile, he said direct fire attacks, the hallmark of the so-called "Sunni Arab rejectionists", have dropped significantly.

General Taluto, who spoke with reporters at the Pentagon via a satellite link from Iraq, said U.S. and coalition forces under his command continue to train Iraqi security forces. To date, he said, they have trained some 50-thousand Iraqi soldiers, police and border patrol in the four provinces.

"Iraqi security forces are already conducting over half of the operations that we do. They are either involved with us, or they are doing things with minimal coalition support. That's a huge accomplishment," he said.

He added that while these new forces are playing a larger role, the Iraqi commanders are not yet directing operations.

General Taluto also said his forces and the Iraqi security forces have been receiving more help from the local population in the form of tips and reports of suspicious activity. "They see things they don't like. For example, they point out (weapons) caches. Almost eight out of the 10 caches that we find now are pointed out to us by Iraqis. They will point out and have pointed out cars that look suspicious to them. They'll report cars that are parked on the side of the road or in a city that they don't like," he said.

In one case in Kirkuk, General Taluto said a citizen's tip on a strange vehicle in a market led Iraqi police to cordon off the area. "The police reacted to that, cordoned off the area, brought in their own EOD team (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), had the car inspected and sure enough it was rigged for explosion," he said.

General Taluto called the citizen's tip and the response of the Iraqi police and security forces "heartening." He said in June alone they received more than four thousand phone calls with information related to suspicious acts.