The top U.S. commander in Iraq says the new security operation in Baghdad and in al-Anbar province is growing and insurgents are intensifying efforts to derail the crackdown. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Baghdad that in General David Petraeus's first press conference since taking command last month, he also said the security push alone is not enough to solve Iraq's problems.
General Petraeus took command of U.S. forces in Iraq in February, as American and Iraqi forces were preparing for a months-long security operation designed to secure the capital and drive out Sunni insurgents in al Anbar province.
The general says in the last month he has toured parts of Baghdad, and said he was "taken aback" by how some neighborhoods have changed since he was last in Iraq.
"When I left 17 months ago now, there certainly was not the kind of emptiness in some of the neighborhoods of Baghdad," he said.
Thousands of Baghdad residents have fled worsening sectarian violence in the last year.
General Petraeus says the number of sectarian killings has fallen since the security operation began, and a small number of families have returned home, but it is still too early to call the improvements a significant trend.
"A primary goal of this operation is to secure those neighborhoods to try to restore confidence in those who live there that they can return home, that shopkeepers can reopen their businesses, that markets can begin to flourish again, and that kids can go to school without being kidnapped and so forth," he added.
The general says the last of nine Iraqi battalions and the second of five American brigades are in Baghdad as part of the troop surge operation, called Operation "Fardh al Qanoon" or "Enforcing the Law." He says the remaining additional troops will be in place by early June.
General Petraeus said there are three categories of insurgents - al Qaida in Iraq terrorist cells, sectarian militias and violent criminals - and all are trying to derail the security operation by provoking more violence between Iraqi Sunnis and Shi'ites.
"Some of these groups are still carrying out their barbaric acts. In fact we believe they have sought to intensify their sensational attacks in recent weeks to provoke renewed sectarian violence and derail operation Fardh al Qanoon before it can be fully implemented," said General Petraeus.
This week, insurgents launched several shooting and suicide bomb attacks against Shi'ite pilgrims who are walking to the holy city of Karbala for the Arbaeen religious holiday. More than 170 people have been killed in the violence.
The general said he shares the "horror and the sadness" in seeing the pilgrims attacked. But he said Iraqi soldiers have done an impressive job overseeing security for the pilgrimage, which is the largest in several years.
He said some reports estimate as many as five million pilgrims are walking on major roads to Karbala, making security difficult.
"It is an enormous task to protect all of them and there is a point at which, if someone is willing to blow up himself, particularly perhaps disguise himself, and use a vest rather than a vehicle, the problem becomes very very difficult indeed," he said.
General Petraeus says more than security is needed and Iraq's political leaders must deliver the government services that are essential to gaining the support of the population.
"As citizens feel safer, conditions will be set for the resumption and improvement for basic services," he continued. "This is hugely important; indeed, Iraqis have often ranked the provision of services ahead of security in importance."
General Petraeus says the Iraqi government has earmarked more than $7 billion for security expenses and $10 billion for infrastructure.