The commanding officer of coalition forces in Iraq says attacks on his troops have increased in recent weeks, and he expects things to get worse.
General Ricardo Sanchez says attacks against coalition troops and Iraqi security forces have reached as many as 35 each day. But he says such attacks do not come as a surprise. He says an increase in attacks was predicted when coalition forces recently moved in greater numbers to areas primarily to the west of Baghdad to engage organized extremist groups.
"We knew this was an area that was a challenge for us, and we clearly stated back then that there was still a lot of fighting to be done here and that this would be an increase in the engagements," he said. "That there would be an increase in our casualties because we were going to take the fight to the enemy out there."
General Sanchez says he fully expects attacks against coalition forces will become more aggressive and what he called "more radical." He also predicts some attacks will come from groups associated with the al-Qaida terror network. The general says coalition forces have detected the coordination and synchronization of extremist groups at both local and regional levels.
He also reports coalition forces continue to uncover hidden caches of weapons and explosives. He estimates there are about 650,000 tons of weapons in Iraq.
General Sanchez says one way to ease pressure on coalition forces would be faster progress on Iraqi reconstruction.
"There are a couple of things that cause me to lose sleep. The first one is the pace at which we are making progress," the general noted. "We are making progress. But I believe the progress needs to be expedited. We need to accelerate it, and that is progress across all the lines of operation that we are working on. It is the economic, political and, in fact, the security."
General Sanchez says a priority should be to speed up the re-organization of Iraqi security forces so they can take responsibility for the safety of the country.
During Wednesday's news conference, a recent report by a human rights group regarding allegations of misconduct by coalition forces was mentioned. The report suggested that as many as 90 Iraqi civilians have been killed as the result of such misconduct. General Sanchez says any and all allegations against coalition forces are being aggressively investigated.
"We do not ignore allegations against our soldiers. That is not something that the American ethic allows," he said. "That is not something that the American forces allow. We are a disciplined, professional organization that has a very well established set of values and that is what makes the American Army great. We are not going to allow that kind of lack of discipline to continue in forces. And, whenever we find that we have got a problem we are always the first ones to engage and ensure that those problems are taken care of."
General Sanchez says troop morale remains high and, while acknowledging that as many as 30 coalition troops have committed suicide in Iraq, he says statistically, considering the number of troops, the number of suicides is not more than might be expected.