The U.S. army general in charge of security in Baghdad and three nearby provinces says sectarian conflict is not as big a part of the violence as many people believe. Major General James Thurman spoke on a video link with reporters at the Pentagon.
General Thurman acknowledges there has been some sectarian violence since the bombing of the Shi'ite Golden Mosque in Samarra last month. But he says most of the violence is perpetrated by terrorists and ordinary criminals.
"Since the Golden Shrine bombing on February the 22, many have attempted to call every act of violence sectarian," he said. "This is not true. Much of the violence in Iraq can be attributed to desperate acts of terrorism, designed to derail the formation of the national unity government."
Aside from insurgent groups, General Thurman indicated that private militias are Iraq's biggest security challenge. Although he disputed reports that some militias are growing, he said the Iraqi government needs to establish a policy putting the militias under central control. The general said he believes the government is working on such a policy, but he could not predict when it might be ready, particularly with negotiations continuing over the formation of a new Cabinet.
Meanwhile, he said, he does not actively pursue militias, and the militias seem to want to avoid any confrontation with his troops.
"We have seen some evidence of militias, where there have been encounters out on the streets. But, as soon as we show up, that is defused," he added.
General Thurman said Iraqi troops and police units are more and more often taking the lead in counter-insurgency operations in Baghdad and the three provinces to the south that come under his responsibility. He also says more Iraqis are calling a special phone number to report insurgent activity. He says there have been more than 3,000 such calls since January, and that most of them have resulted in military operations that found insurgents, criminals or weapons caches.