The commander of multi-national forces in Iraq's northern provinces reports significant progress in the battle against terrorists and insurgents, allowing the region to turn its attention to economic matters and other concerns.  VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington.

Despite a recent wave of suicide attacks in Iraq, U.S. Major General Mark Hertling says he has never been more hopeful about the country's future as he is right now.

"We have seen a sharp decline, not only in attacks, but [also] in foreign fighters traversing the western Ninawa deserts.  And we have captured or killed dozens of mid and high-level [terrorist] operatives in the province and in the city of Mosul itself.  With the Iraqi army, we have also disrupted the flow of foreign terrorists from Syria," he said.

Hertling was speaking near Tikrit in a teleconference with reporters at the Pentagon.

The general says Iraqi army and police forces are growing in numbers and becoming more effective every day, contributing to a markedly-improved security situation in the country's northern provinces.  As a result, he says residents and local governments have been able to devote greater attention to infrastructure and employment needs.

Hertling stresses that the battle against terrorists and insurgents is far from won.  He says many combatants have been forced from cities like Mosul and are now attempting to regroup in villages and rural areas.  This trend has necessitated a new initiative, called Operation Iron Pursuit, to hunt down terrorists outside urban areas.

"It is a very hopeful time in Iraq, but there are still a lot of enemy [fighters] out there, and in order to get the people of Iraq completely secure, we have to continue to go after al-Qaida and the other extremists," he added.

Hertling noted that Georgian troops serving in Iraq have been called home as a result of their country's ongoing conflict with Russia.  But the general expressed confidence that the departure of Georgian forces, which total 2,000 in Iraq, would not significantly weaken multi-national operations.