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US Military Says More of Baghdad Under Control, but Casualties Remain High

The commander of U.S. troops in Baghdad says al-Qaida cells are being cornered into fighting rather than fleeing the new offensive by his forces and the Iraqi army. Major General Joseph Fil says the result is continuing high U.S. casualties, but also progress toward taking control of previously hostile neighborhoods. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

Speaking via satellite from Baghdad, General Fil pointed to an insurgent attack on Thursday that involved a large bomb, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire, resulting in the deaths of five American soldiers and the wounding of six more.

"Well, it was a very violent attack," he said. "And we did think it showed a level of sophistication we had not often seen so far in this campaign."

General Fil says insurgents are confronting U.S. troops that way because their freedom of movement has been restricted by the surge of U.S. and Iraqi troops into the city and its surrounding areas.

"They have previously been, frankly, elusive when we actually got into an area and started to clear it," he added. "And we're seeing that in this area of East Rashid they're standing and fighting, and we're fully prepared for that."

General Fil provided statistics to back up his claim that the new Baghdad Security Plan is working. He said in April about 19 percent of the capital's neighborhoods were under control. He said that is up to 48 percent now, with another 36 percent of neighborhoods in the process of being cleared of insurgents.

Still, the general would not predict when the city might be fully under control, or how much of the job might be done by September, when senior officials are to make a progress report to the U.S. Congress.

"I am certainly cognizant of that, but I can tell you that we haven't altered any of our plans based on this date, which will be an important one, but it will come and go," he said.

General Fil says the number of insurgent attacks is down in Baghdad, and their overall impact has been reduced. But he says the insurgents are burying larger and larger bombs in the path of U.S. troops, like the one that exploded Thursday. That keeps the U.S. casualty rate high, but the general says casualties are not a good measure of success or failure, because they result in part from the higher operational tempo of his forces since the new security plan went into effect in January.

At a Pentagon news conference Friday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said a special Pentagon task force is working hard to find ways to protect troops from the bombs, through technology, neighborhood diplomacy and military operations.

"This is not a problem, I think, that's going to be confined to Iraq. And so we need to keep working on it and find ways to protect our soldiers and marines," he said.

Secretary Gates said that includes developing relationships with local leaders who can help monitor activities in their neighborhoods. General Fil says there is a major effort to do that in Baghdad, with a formal application and vetting process for former insurgents who want to cooperate with the government. He says the program gets 300 applicants a day who are willing to swear allegiance and come under Iraqi army or police control.

General Fil also says his forces are finding more Iranian munitions in Baghdad.

"There's no doubt that they're coming out of Iran," he noted. "Most of them are made fairly recently, in the past several years, and they have lot numbers that we can trace through to Iran."

The general says the Iranian weapons are mainly rockets and mortar shells, and many of them are being fired from the mainly Shi'ite Sadr City neighborhood into the heavily protected Green Zone, where the U.S. embassy and Iraqi government buildings are located.