U.S. commander says militant group routed from Baghdad

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By Damien Cave

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

BAGHDAD: American forces have routed Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia from every neighborhood of Baghdad, a top American general said Wednesday, allowing for a reduction of U.S. troops to pre-surge levels and an increased focus on Shiite militias.

Major-General Joseph Fil, commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, said that American troops have yet to clear 13 percent of the city, including Sadr City and several other neighborhoods controlled by Shiite militias. But, he said, "there's just no question" that violence has been reduced since a spike in June.

"Murder victims are down 80 percent from where they were at the peak" he said. "IED attacks are down 70 percent."

Fil - during in a wide-ranging interview over egg rolls and lo mein in a Green Zone conference room - attributed the decline to a number of factors, including improvements among Iraqi security forces, a cease-fire ordered by the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, the disruption of funding for insurgents, and most significantly, Iraqis' rejection of "the rule of the gun."

He described a city in transition: unhappy with the past and uncertain about the future. "The Iraqi people have just decided that they've had it up to here with violence," he said, adding that demands for electricity, water and jobs have intensified.

Hundreds if not thousands of displaced families are returning to their homes - but the city remains largely segregated by sect, and as Fil said, "clearly it will take some time for Baghdad to restore itself to what it was."

Military commanders have maintained for months that the conditions for national reconciliation have been met. They argue that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a homegrown Sunni extremist group that American intelligence agencies say is foreign led and responsible for most suicide bombings, has been weakened by the rise of American-supported citizen volunteers - 67,000 nationwide, according to military figures.

Though the militant group could revive and "re-infest very quickly," Fil said, the capital now is calm enough for Iraq's leaders to build a trusted, cross-sectarian government. But so far, he said, the progress on that front has been "disappointing."

Fil said there would soon be fewer troops for the Iraqis to rely on. "Already we are at a point where we'll see that as the surge forces depart the city, we'll see a natural decline in numbers and I'm very comfortable where that comes to," he said.

He offered a mixed vision of the U.S. military's role for the coming year. He said if 2007 was the year of security, 2008 would probably be "a year of reconstruction, a year of infrastructure repair, and a year of if there's going to be a surge, a year of the surge of the economy."

When asked what the American military would handle, he said: "The U.S. military can help provide the conditions for that to occur, but the U.S. military can't spur the economy on. These are decisions the Iraqis are going to have to make and they are making."

He acknowledged that dislodging Shiite militias from control of gasoline distribution, government ministries and other sources of power would be difficult. In the end, particularly in terms of creating prosperity, "these become national-level problems," he said.

Violence, despite recent gains in some areas, has also become more national, moving to some degree from major cities to rural villages and town. On Wednesday, two children died when a roadside bomb exploded on a farm road in Wasit province. South of Baquba, Iraqi army patrols found 17 bodies, blind-folded, hand cuffed and decayed. Four of them were found headless about 200 yards away. It was the second mass grave discovered in a rural area this week.

American troops have recently targeted more operations to the farm towns and dusty villages of the country, with the latest coming this week outside the northern city of Kirkuk.

The operations are aimed at maintaining what Fil described as vital momentum. The greatest challenge of the coming months, he said, will be satisfying the fragile hopes and expectations of Iraqis, who see security not as an end to itself but just a beginning. Stability, Fil said, "is within sight but not yet within touch. Close, but not yet within touch."

Khalid al-Ansary, Anwar J. Ali and Mudhafer al-Husaini contributed reporting from Baghdad; Iraqi employees of The New York Times contributed reporting from Baquba and Kirkuk.
 
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