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US, Iraqi Defense Ministers Declare Notable Gains in Security

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Iraq's defense minister say coalition forces have achieved notable security gains in Iraq. The two men on Thursday marked the one year anniversary of the Bush administration's decision to send more troops into Iraq. VOA's Jim Fry reports.

U.S. and Iraqi soldiers are on the move northeast of Baghdad. It is an offensive known as Phantom Phoenix.

On Tuesday, 8 January, the Pentagon released a video that it said was an air strike against al-Qaida forces southeast of Baghdad. And then Thursday, the military announced similar strikes on an al-Qaida stronghold on the outskirts of Baghdad. The military called it one of the largest bombing campaigns in recent months.

At the Pentagon, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates appeared before reporters with Iraqi Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir.

He reminded the audience of the anniversary. "As you know, one year ago today the president announced a new way forward in Iraq, also known as the surge," noted Gates.

Gates and al-Qadir said security gains have cut the number high profile attacks by 60 percent and civilian deaths by 75 percent.

The Iraqi government's stated goal is to replace with Iraqi troops the multi-national forces, including U.S. troops. The defense minister did not say when.

He says, "We work in full coordination and we believe we are capable of filling the gap."

Earlier this week, President Bush praised the progress in Iraq.

"Improvements on the ground are allowing some forces on the ground to return home. Strategy is called, 'Return on Success.' It has now begun," President Bush said.

Mr. Bush gave some of the credit to Iraqi citizen groups.

Such groups have signed pledges to oppose terrorists and insurgents, leading to more peaceful neighborhoods and open markets. But critics say underlying conflicts in Iraqi society have not disappeared.

Stephen Biddle, with the private Council on Foreign Relations in Washington says, "These negotiated agreements are, therefore, not inherently stable or self-policing."

Biddle says that lasting peace can be achieved only if an outside force is maintained in Iraq. He says the number of U.S. troops has already fallen below what experts say is needed for a peacekeeping mission in a country like Iraq. "And if we leave ourselves without sufficient forces for a peacekeeping and enforcement role, I am concerned that we could create a self-defeating prophesy in Iraq, and lose the things that we have gained at such cost and such sacrifice," added Biddle.

Meanwhile, as U.S. troops hunt down insurgents in Iraq's northern provinces, two explosions near Baghdad claimed at least three lives and wounded eleven others.

"There will continue to be tough days and tough weeks. We are not done yet, by any means," Gates said.

Gates says insurgents now have fewer places to hide in Iraq, but he says the current offensive does not represent the last major battle.