The commander of coalition forces in northern Iraq says al-Qaida forces have been able to regenerate themselves, in spite of heavy losses, but he says the terror network has been weakened enough that Iraqi government forces can prevent the outbreak of widespread violence. The commander spoke via satellite from the Iraqi town of Tikrit to reporters at the Pentagon.
U.S. Army Major General Robert Caslen says that while there have been several large-scale attacks in recent weeks, some of them in his area, the overall number of attacks is down. The general says that in the volatile town of Mosul, there were an average of 42 attacks each week before Iraqi forces took over security responsibility at the end of June. Now, he says, there are 29 attacks per week.
But Caslen acknowledges that al-Qaida is still a capable force and that many of its recent attacks have been large-scale car bombings that kill large numbers of Iraqi civilians.
"They have the capability of regenerating themselves," said General Caslen. "They recognize how important it is to have these high-profile attacks in order to get the attention that is necessary. Overall, their attack trends are down. But they recognize what they need to do is the high-profile attacks and go after the local nationals in order to entice the sectarian violence."
But the general says so far Iraqi forces, with U.S. support, have been able to prevent the attacks from sparking another round of widespread sectarian violence.
"What we're finding is that the Iraqi security forces, with some hiccups, are able to maintain the pressure on the networks," he said. "I feel, this is my personal opinion, I feel that the networks have degenerated enough that with sustaining the pressure by the Iraqi security forces, they'll be able to maintain the lid on them and you're not going to get this tremendous resurgence of sectarian counter-activity that you saw back in 2006 and 2007."
Still, General Caslen says it is too soon to determine whether Iraqi forces can keep al-Qaida under control for the long term. U.S. troop numbers are expected to decline sharply early next year, and American forces will stop all combat operations about a year from now.
The coalition commander in northern Iraq says he is also worried about tension in the region between Arabs and Kurds. General Caslen says his forces spend a lot of time trying to coordinate operations between the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish peshmerga force, and he acknowledged there is a danger those two could someday fight each other. He says it is up to political leaders on both sides to settle long-standing territorial disputes and defuse tensions.