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US General Cites Progress in Iraq, But Says Long Term Stability Up to Iraq Government

The second-ranking American general in Iraq says there are some positive trends on the level of violence, progress by the Iraqi security forces and reconciliation between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, which should enable the United States to reduce its force level in Iraq as planned. But he says Iraqi government action on reconciliation and providing basic services is the key to long-term stability. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Pentagon.

Lieutenant General Ray Odierno says coalition casualties declined in October for the fifth consecutive month to 50 killed in action. He says attacks by the insurgents' deadliest weapons, hidden bombs, are also down. The general also says Iraqi civilian deaths declined for the fourth consecutive month to fewer than 1,000, but Iraqi government statistics reported Thursday indicate a slight increase from September to October.

Speaking later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the security improvements in Iraq are a direct result of the surge of U.S. forces earlier this year.

"It is due in the first instance to the surge, and then the consequences of the surge, and some of the things the surge has led to in al-Anbar and some of the areas around Baghdad at this point," he said.

General Odierno, speaking via satellite from Baghdad, told reporters at the Pentagon, the surge of U.S. forces earlier this year significantly degraded the ability of al-Qaida in Iraq and Shi'ite militants to carry out attacks.

At the same time, he reports, the Iraqi security forces have continued to improve their capability, and more Iraqis are cooperating with the government and the coalition, rather than with the militants. The general believes the United States will be able to end the surge as planned, reducing its troop presence by 25 percent within a year, without causing a resurgence of violence.

"I believe that we will be able to move forward with the progress, based on the progress we have made against the enemy, based on the continued improvement of the Iraqi security forces, and continued on the support of the population we are now receiving, I feel that we will be able to continue to hold on to the gains that we have," he said.

But General Odierno also cautioned that the gains are "not yet irreversible." He said the Iraqi government needs to do a better job of providing basic services to people in areas where security has improved. And he says the government needs to move forward with long-pending legislation, and also with practical aspects of reconciliation.

"If we can provide services on a consistent basis, that will bring about much more reduction in violence than military operations. And so, I agree with that. As well as continued movement toward reconciliation. So, I think those are the keys. I think those could be the tipping point, if we can get those things moving," he said.

General Odierno says the government also needs to allow more Sunnis to join the new Iraqi police force. He says there is now a process to do that, and the coalition command is involved.

"I think there's still much more work they have to do. We are working with them for them to move forward with this. Again, they are planning, they are saying the right things, and that's good. We now need to see a bit of action on the ground," he said.

Last week, one of General Odierno's regional commanders, General Benjamin Mixon, accused the Iraqi government of "foot-dragging" on the security clearances for Sunni police recruits. But General Odierno said he does not share that view.

General Odierno also said it is too early to know whether a reported Iraqi-Iranian agreement has led to a reduction in support from Iran for Shi'ite militants in Iraq. The Los Angeles Times reported the agreement a month ago, quoting the top coalition commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus.

General Odierno says his forces recently found a large number of the high-powered bombs the United States says are provided from Iran. He also says the number of attacks using such bombs is down from 99 in July to 53 last month. But he says it will take a couple of more months to determine whether the flow of such weapons from Iran has been reduced.