Former U.S. Iraq commander General David Petraeus said the latest bombings in Iraq underscore the need for vigilance to prevent the situation from deteriorating.
Attacks by suicide bombers that have killed at least 140 people in the last two days, 185 so far in April, have caused renewed concern in the U.S. Congress, where General Petraeus testified to a House committee.
General Petraeus said while there has been "very substantial progress" in Iraq, and al-Qaida and other extremists elements have been "reduced significantly," bringing the number of attacks from 160 per day down to 10 to 15, more attacks can be expected.
"For all the reasons I mentioned in my opening statement, which include the resilience of al-Qaida in Iraq although considerably diminished it retains a capability and it does retain a desire to re-establish its networks, and it does periodically still have the capability to carry out the kind of horrific attacks that it carried out yesterday," he said.
Speaking as news of Friday's bombings in Baghdad reached members of Congress, General Petraeus said current U.S. Iraq commander General Ray Odierno was examining intelligence to determine which al-Qaida network may have been re-established and how it was able to carry out the attacks.
To some extent, Petraeus said, recent attacks can be attributed to a more relaxed atmosphere as overall security in Iraq has improved. This he said underscores the need for Iraqi forces to maintain their vigilance and discipline, especially at key checkpoints.
General Petraeus said some details are known about which group may be behind recent attacks.
"In this case, we do know for example that a network that provides foreign fighters from Tunisia through Syria to Iraq was re-activated or re-established after the foreign fighter network in Iraq was damaged very significantly over the course of the last 6 months or so. And we know that for example four of the suicide bombers in the past couple of weeks were Tunisians and we captured one of the facilitators," he said.
Republican Representative Zach Wamp asked General Petraeus what recent attacks could mean for the U.S. military draw down.
"Give us a feeling from your perspective of how much security and war-fighting capability is still necessary for us in Iraq to leave it in a condition that those security forces in Iraq will be able to maintain the progress that has been made so that it is not fragile and irreversible," Wamp said.
That brought this response from Petraeus, who said eliminating extremists elements is not going to be easy or quick.
"Iraqi security forces number some 600,000 now, and again they are considerably more capable than they were just a couple of years ago, but there will be continued attacks of this type over time. It is going to take a considerable time for Iraq to eliminate all of the remaining elements," he respnded.
General Petraeus reiterated concerns about "lingering ethnic and sectarian mis-trust" in Iraq, along with tensions between political parties and other factors, and integration of the "Sons of Iraq", the local primarily-Sunni security forces recruited, armed and supported by the U.S. into the national force.
But he said the transfer of responsibility to Iraqi forces continues and both sides "remain on track" for implementing their joint security agreement, including further reductions of coalition forces and the withdrawal of U.S military units from urban areas, and executing President Obama's strategy.
Under the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement concluded last year, U.S. forces are to pull out of cities on June 30 with a complete withdrawal of combat forces by late 2011, though U.S. Iraq commander Odierno has not ruled out changes based on security conditions.