The commander of coalition forces in western Iraq says he expects al-Qaida in Iraq fighters to try to return to the region as they are pushed out of other parts of the country, and possibly to try to launch large-scale attacks. But the commander says his forces, and Iraqi units, are ready. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
Speaking from Iraq via satellite, Major General John Kelly said there has been a "stunning" reduction in violence in western Iraq since his last tour of duty there three years ago. But he says al-Qaida in Iraq and other violent elements are not finished yet.
"The best way to characterize it, I think, is that they're down but they're not out," said General Kelly.
General Kelly says his forces are watching for a possible attempt by some fighters to return to western al-Anbar Province as they are pushed out of other parts of the country.
"Certainly if they're driven out of other parts of the country, our sense is they'll come back to where they know best," he said. "There's a fair number that came out of the Anbar Province and fought us pretty hard here. So if they're on the run, the expectation is that they'll come back here."
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says senior officers expect al-Qaida may also renew its efforts to launch attacks in other relatively secure parts of Iraq.
"I think what the commanders believe is going on is that as we take the fight to al-Qaida in what is its remaining strongholds, primarily in the north, Diyala, Nineweh and Salah a-Din [Provinces], we are starting to see some elements of al-Qaida lash out in other areas," said Geoff Morrell.
Morrell cited Monday's bomb attack in Baghdad that killed five American soldiers as an example. He said the U.S. military "can adjust to meet this new tactic, if it is such a tactic."
General Kelly says the 45,000 Iraqi security force members and local citizens in patrol groups in his area in western Iraq are ready for any new al-Qaida effort. He says the Iraqi forces control the roads, and local citizens frequently report the presence of insurgent groups when they appear in villages and towns.
General Kelly believes it would be difficult for al-Qaida to establish a bomb-making factory in the region, or to bring in a lot of explosives from elsewhere. Still, he says intelligence reports indicate some reason for concern.
"We also have indications that they may change their tactics here a little bit and do some of the bigger events that capture the attention of the world through the media," he said.
But the general says the intelligence reports do not say where or when such an attack might happen. Meanwhile, he says smaller-scale suicide attacks in western Iraq are mainly aimed at local Iraqi officials who have turned against al-Qaida.
Asked about future troop levels, General Kelly said he is already losing some of his 30,000 U.S. troops as the surge units return home in the coming months. After that, he says, he agrees with top commanders and Defense Secretary Robert Gates that troop drawdowns should stop for a period of assessment, which he says should be "a few months."
The general says, "It's not won quite yet."