WASHINGTON (AFP) – High-profile attacks and casualty figures in Iraq fell in 2010 to their lowest level since the US invasion, while the number of Al-Qaeda leaders captured or killed soared, the US commander in Iraq said Friday.
“All of those statistics for the first five months of 2010 are the lowest we’ve had on record,” General Ray Odierno told reporters in Washington.
“Although there has been some violence — there have been some bad days in Iraq — every statistic continues to go in the right direction.”
He said US and Iraqi security forces in the past three months have detained or killed 34 of the top 42 Al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders, following a “significant” infiltration of AQI’s apparent headquarters in the city of Mosul.
“We’ve been whittling away at this for a very long time,” Odierno said, adding that “we were able to get inside this network.”
The terror group, he said, “will attempt to regenerate themselves (but) they are finding it more difficult” in the face of persistent joint US-Iraqi security operations and what he described as a rejection of Al-Qaeda by “99.9 percent” of the Iraqi population.
The steadily improving security, the intelligence boon and the new statistics — announced by Odierno two days after his White House meeting with US President Barack Obama — bode well for Iraq as the US prepares a drawdown from 88,000 troops on the ground today to 50,000 by the end of August.
But Odierno stressed: “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.”
Iraqi security forces in late May announced the arrest of Al-Qaeda’s Baghdad military chief Abbas Najem Abdullah al-Jawari, who went by the alias Abu Abdullah, as well as Mohammed Nuri Matar Yassin al-Abadi, who was in charge of Al-Qaeda’s assassination units in the capital.
In April, AQI’s political leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and the group’s self-styled “minister of war” Abu Ayub al-Masri were killed in a joint US-Iraqi operation.
Odierno attributed the successes to dramatic improvements in capability by the Iraqi security forces, which he said are now leading security efforts “across the country,” including on most counterterrorism operations.
“They are getting more and more ready to take over full control of security” as American troops drawn down, he said.
“The Iraqis are in the lead, we are not.”
Obama has ordered the withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq by September 1, with the US force due to decline to 50,000. Under a security agreement with Baghdad, all US forces must pull out by the end of 2011.
“We are on track to be at 50,000 by the first of September. We are on our plan,” Odierno said, adding that he has managed to reduce the number of US-run bases in Iraq from 500 about one year ago to 126 today, with a further 32 to shutter by September 1.
The number of contractors in country has dropped as well, to between 85,000 and 90,000 today from a high of 175,000 less then a year ago. By September 1, up to 65,000 contractors will still be in Iraq.
Odierno stressed, as did Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month, that the drawdown had not been delayed because of recent violence or delays in forming a new Iraqi government.
The general praised Iraq’s military leaders for their neutrality and professionalism “during this time of vulnerability as we are getting ready to seat the government.”
Iraq’s security forces have “proven a lot to us that they are getting more and more ready to take over full control of security.”