The top U.S. commander in Iraq says his forces and Iraqi troops have captured or killed 34 of the top 42 leaders of al-Qaida in the country, significantly hurting the organizations ability to conduct attacks. General Ray Odierno also says Iran is taking a less violent but still destructive approach in its involvement in Iraq.
General Odierno says the number of violent incidents, the number of casualties and the number of high-profile attacks in Iraq are all at their lowest levels since the conflict started. He attributes the change to increased competence by the Iraqi security forces and a joint operation in the town of Mosul about three months ago that broke a key al-Qaida cell and led to a series of attacks on some of the group's leaders and the arrests of several more.
"We were able to get inside of this network, pick a lot of them up, and we will continue, with our Iraqi security force partners, to go after them," said General Odierno. "But there are still some very dangerous people out there. And there are some mid-and low-level leaders. We don't want them to develop into senior leadership. And that's what we're working towards now."
Odierno says al-Qaida will try to overcome the setback, and he says it is still capable of carrying out attacks, particularly against undefended civilian targets. But he says the group is having more trouble recruiting fighters and leaders, and is finding it more and more difficult to destabilize the Iraqi government.
The general says the plan is on track to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Iraq from 88,000 now to 50,000 by September first, and he does not expect the move to affect the security situation.
"The Iraqis are in the lead," he said. "We are not. They have taken over the lead. What we're doing now is we are training, advising and assisting them. We continue to support our Provincial Reconstruction Teams and the UN for civil capacity. And we conduct partnerned counter-terrorism operations. That's what we do today. And that's what we'll do post-One September [after 09/01]"
General Odierno says in addition to security, the other key to long-term stability in Iraq is politics. He called the certification of the election results a very important step, and also said he is pleased with talk of forming a government that includes all political factions.
"Most of the security issues will come from what spawns out of the political realm," said Odierno. "That's why it's important to have a unity government. We don't want to see any group that feels it's been disenfranchised and even contemplates moving back to an insurgency."
General Odierno also says Iran appears to have changed its strategy in Iraq in a way that contributes to the reduction in violence, but still seeks to gain influence.
"They clearly moved away from a heavy lethal strategy to one that involves some lethal, and then some non-lethal, trying to almost gain monopolies in some economic areas as well as through heavy diplomatic and security collection influence inside of Iraq," he said. "So they're still doing it, but at a lower level."
Still, the general says Iran continues to train Iraqi insurgents and to work through them to strike at targets in Iraq. As an example, he said an attack Thursday in the Iraqi town of Amara that killed two Iraqi soldiers and wounded two more was an operation by Iranian surrogates. And he says there are still a large number of Iranian-made rockets and high-powered roadside bombs in Iraq.
General Odierno says he will end his two-year tour as the U.S. commander in Iraq soon, but he indicated he will stay through the end of the current drawdown on September 1.