OWESAT, Iraq (AFP) – The impending drawdown of some 30,000 US troops from Iraq will not disrupt the “relentless” pursuit of Al-Qaeda as Iraqis are ready to take their place, says US commander General David Petraeus.
Washington has projected the withdrawal of five units by July, which would bring the number of US troops in Iraq down from 160,000 currently to about 130,000 — the level before a “surge” was launched last February.
Speaking on Wednesday in Owesat village on the banks of the Euphrates, about 25 kilometres (17 miles) southwest of Baghdad near the town of Yusufiyah, Petraeus vowed no quarter would be given in the fight against Osama bin Laden’s extremist network, blamed for much of the violence in Iraq.
“We cannot let up — they are much more on the defensive right now than they have been in years and that is where we have to keep them,” Washington’s top general in Iraq said as he declared the village of Owesat, just months ago a hotbed of Sunni insurgency, now secure.
“This was a small Al-Qaeda sanctuary that offered an opportunity to go right across the river and right into Baghdad,” he said. “Having this secured is very important to the overall security of the Iraqi capital.”
He shrugged off concerns that the US troop withdrawals could see a reversal of gains made in the past six months, when according to US figures, the number of attacks across Iraq has dropped by 62 percent.
“It is very important to remember that our surge is dwarfed by the Iraqi surge that is taking place,” Petraeus said on one of his trademark “battlefield” tours, accompanied by a small group of reporters.
“The official Iraqi security forces has increased by something like 110,000 or so in the past year — during which (time) our surge was 30,000,” he said after visiting the rural village, reaching it on foot by crossing a floating bridge the US military has thrown across the Euphrates.
“There are also 70,000 plus concerned local citizens who are now helping our forces and our Iraqi partners,” he added, referring to members of powerful anti-Qaeda fronts being formed across the country by the US military.
The 30,000 US “surge” troops were deployed from February last year in a bid to quell raging sectarian violence that has killed thousands of Iraqis.
According to a Pentagon report last week, the surge has been working, with US forces achieving “significant security progress” in Iraq over the past three months and the number of attacks across the country down 62 percent.
Lean and tanned from his regular walkabouts in Iraqi frontline villages, the 54-year-old Petraeus was upbeat on Wednesday about the operations against Al-Qaeda.
“Because the Iraqi generation of additional army and police forces will continue throughout 2008, it allows us to hold an area that has been cleared and then we continue to move on farther with our Iraqi partners and the support of the locals,” he said.
After meeting US military commanders, tribal sheikhs, local farmers and members of concerned local citizens groups, Petraeus warned that insurgents still posed a dangerous threat, as indicated by a suicide bomb attack on a funeral in Baghdad on Tuesday that killed at least 30 people.
“It is very, very important — we have to be relentless in our push against Al-Qaeda.
“This is one reason that their ability to carry out attacks, to plant more sophisticated explosive devices and to mount the bigger attacks against us and our Iraqi partners has been diminished,” added Petraeus, who next month marks one year as general commander in Iraq.
While the creation of concerned local citizens groups was paying dividends, he acknowledged there are concerns over the programme.
“There are understandably a host of issues connected with concerned local citizens… certainly there are worries that they may be infiltrated by Al-Qaeda or by affiliated insurgent groups, that they could at some point in time turn on the government of Iraq,” said the paratrooper, his boots kicking up clouds of dust as he strode along tracks that zig-zag through the farmlands.
“Those are all are legitimate concerns,” he said, adding that he would prefer to see them being incorporated into the police force, which is controlled by the interior ministry.
He cited developments in the city of Fallujah in western Anbar province as further reason he is optimistic Iraq’s security forces can take over when US troops begin withdrawing.
“Fallujah, which used to be held completely by an Iraqi army brigade or more plus our marines or soldiers over time is now completely held by Iraqi police… Our units and Iraqi army units have been able to move outside the city and pursue Al-Qaeda more to the north and south.”