The No. 2 U.S. general in Iraq says there has been another increase in sectarian violence in the country during the last two weeks, and he blames al-Qaida for sparking it. The general spoke via satellite to reporters at the Pentagon.
Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli says there was little sectarian violence in Iraq before the attack on the Shi'ite Golden Dome Mosque in February. He says a spike in such violence at that time later dissipated. However, during the last week or two, the general says, sectarian violence has increased again, and he blames the Iraqi branch of the al-Qaida terrorist network, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He says the insurgents are trying to disrupt the process of forming a new government, and convince Iraqis that democracy is not solving their problems.
"Those accelerators are the actions of Zarqawi and his terrorists, who see this as a tremendous opportunity, a tremendous strategy that they can implement, that they can use to try to get Iraqis to concentrate on something totally different," he says.
General Chiarelli says there are signs that the insurgents will fail, and his forces, along with Iraqi forces, are doing everything they can to prevent the sectarian tensions from getting any worse.
"The good news is that we are not seeing Iraqis in neighborhoods picking up arms against each other,” he says. “We continue our presence patrols, our joint patrols in the neighborhoods to give the people a feeling of security."
General Chiarelli says the formation of the new Iraqi government, expected on Saturday, is a 'historic and decisive' moment that will enable the country to deal with the issues that are behind the violence, so the country can move toward stability and self-sufficiency. He says the security forces are improving and are doing what they can to fight the violence, but the general believes the long-term solution to the Iraqi insurgency lies in non-military areas, like improving the economy, that the new government will be able to address.
"Finally, we have a government that can concentrate on doing exactly that,” he says, “and that is absolutely essential, to take the angry young men off the street, to give them an alternative. And, believe me, they want an alternative. And, I honestly believe, as this government begins work on the policy that will be required to put people to work, that you're going to see a decrease in violence."
The new Iraqi government has been five months in the making, as politicians bickered over Cabinet posts. U.S. officials say the atmosphere of uncertainty during that period contributed to the continuing violence. They hope that the swearing-in of the new government will be a major turning point in efforts to build the Iraqi security forces, and to address other problems, including the economy and sectarian tensions, and also the role of private militias, the delivery of basic services and a wide range of other urgent issues.