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US General Says Insurgents Attempting to Return to Fallujah

The U.S. general who commands coalition forces in western Iraq says insurgents are trying to re-establish themselves in their former stronghold of Fallujah, but he pledged they will not be allowed to do so. The general also said Iraqi forces are beginning to play a greater role in coalition operations, even in his region, which he says got a later start in developing the Iraqi forces than other parts of the country.

Marine Corps Major General Stephen Johnson says life is returning to normal in Fallujah, following a devastating coalition offensive that cleared the city of insurgents in November. Speaking from Iraq on a video link with reporters at the Pentagon, the general said about 150,000 of Fallujah's residents have returned to the city, businesses and schools are open, and efforts are continuing to restore services like water and electricity.

But General Johnson says the insurgents want to get back into the city, too. "The fact that there are reports of insurgents coming back into town, that's probably normal. Fallujah was a site of a very significant, crushing defeat for them. It's a symbol for the insurgents, and it's probably logical that they would attempt to come back. It's also a symbol for the Iraqi people of success, progress, and that's what the insurgent wants to take away," he said.

General Johnson says the coalition and the new Iraqi security forces are determined not to let that happen. He reported that Fallujah's newly reconstituted police force now has 400 members, with hundreds more graduating from training centers every month. He said the city should have its full complement of police officers by November.

And the general reports his region in western Iraq is now home to 10,000 new Iraqi soldiers, some of whom are playing a key role in counter-insurgency operations. "In the last six or eight weeks we have started to see some great results from this partnering and from the training and from the efforts of the Iraqi soldiers. We've had them in a number of operations. They've been in the combat with our forces side-by-side. They've fought bravely. They've fought effectively. And they've bled for their own country," he said.

General Johnson says the coalition and Iraqi forces are learning to rely on each other, and that the Iraqi soldiers are playing a particularly important role in establishing security in remote areas. In one instance, the general reported, local residents provided information to Iraqi soldiers about a car packed with explosives, and the Iraqi soldiers were able to arrest the owner and prevent the attack he had planned.

The U.S. general acknowledged that most of the Iraqi troops in his sector are not at that level, putting the area behind most of the rest of the country. That coincides with a statement this week by a top U.S. military officer, who indicated that nationwide about two thirds of the Iraqi troops are ready for combat, but only a small number can operate independently.

General Johnson predicted that some of the Iraqi units in the west will be able to assume responsibility for specific areas by early next year, the first step toward an eventual reduction in foreign forces in the region and the country.