The American commander of coalition forces in Iraq says the crisis caused by the bombing of a Shi'ite mosque in Samara 10 days ago has passed, and that the violent reaction to the bombing was not as extensive as some reports indicated.General Casey was concise in his assessment of the current security situation in Iraq.
"I do believe that the crisis part of this has passed," he said.
The general said most of the violent reaction to the mosque bombing was centered on Baghdad and Basra, and that there was little or no violence in most of the country. And he said many reports of attacks on mosques turned out to be false. Overall, he reported severe damage to only two or three mosques, about 350 Iraqi civilian casualties and only about 20 demonstrations that involved more than one thousand people, none with significant violence.
General Casey, who spoke via satellite from Iraq to reporters at the Pentagon, also said the Iraqi government and security forces took the lead and responded well to the crisis, keeping the situation under control, in contrast to incidents in past years when Iraqi forces have sometimes not performed well.
"Has there been violence and terrorism here in Iraq in the wake of the Samara bombings? Clearly. Is that violence out of control? Clearly not," general Casey said.
The coalition commander also discounted news reports that suggest Iraq is on the verge of civil war, although he said the mosque attack was an unsuccessful effort by insurgents to start one.
"Anything can happen, but I think as long as the coalition forces are here on the ground working with the Iraqi security forces, and the vast majority of the Iraqi people remain committed to forming a government of national unity, which I firmly believe that they do, I think the chances of that are not good," the general said.
General Casey said he believes al-Qaida or an affiliated group was responsible for the mosque bombing in Samara, but he said an investigation by Iraq's Ministry of the Interior is not yet finished.
He also said he is increasing security at religious sites to prevent another major attack from sparking a broader reaction. News reports say intelligence agencies are warning of plans for such an attack in the coming days. But the general would not confirm that, saying only that he receives such intelligence reports all the time.
General Casey also indicated that he believes the coalition has at least another year's worth of work to do in Iraq. He said the main goal is to reduce the strength of the insurgency to a level that Iraq's increasingly capable security forces can handle.
"I think we'll continue that role here over the course of the next year as we move the process forward," he said.
Still, General Casey said in spite of the mosque bombing and its aftermath, overall violence in Iraq is not on the rise. He is scheduled to make another recommendation on future U.S. troop levels within the next couple of months, but he said he has not yet started that process.
The general indicated that he was particularly impressed during the recent crisis with the Iraqi army's ability to control private militias. He said that in most cases when militias took over mosques and other key locations, they withdrew when Iraqi military forces arrived. But he also said militias were responsible for retaliatory attacks on mosques in the Baghdad area, and that such incidents should focus the Iraqi government's attention on gaining control of the militias.
"This incident and its aftermath has highlighted for the Iraqi government the need to deal with the militia issue in the very near future. And we think that's a good thing," general Casey said.
The general acknowledged that will not be easy, and will involve disarming the militias and integrating them into the regular Iraqi security forces.
General Casey also said reconstruction efforts are continuing in Iraq, with more than three thousand projects underway. And he said he is working with the U.S. embassy to make a security plan for new reconstruction teams the State Department plans to dispatch in an effort to speed up the process.