WASHINGTON – The portion of Baghdad in which Iraqi security forces are in control with minimal help from the American military has grown only slightly in recent months, to just over 8 percent. That occurred despite an overall decline in insurgent violence in the capital, a senior U.S. commander said Friday.
Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon from his Multinational Division-Baghdad headquarters, painted a generally positive picture but acknowledged that fighting remains hard.“The level of violence is way, way down,” Fil said. “And perhaps more significantly, the ability of the Iraqi security forces to control their own neighborhoods, their own areas, as they stand side by side with American forces – and, in fact, as they take the lead – is growing.”
But it is not growing quickly.
Fil said 8.2 percent of Baghdad’s 474 neighborhoods are now in what the U.S. military calls a “retain” phase, meaning security is being maintained by Iraqi forces with U.S. troops in a reserve role. That is up only slightly from late June when Fil told reporters that it stood at 7 percent.
He said 46 percent of the neighborhoods are in the “control” phase, meaning security is maintained with U.S. troops in the lead, partnering with Iraqis. In late June, that figure was 42 percent. In April it stood at 19 percent.
The goal, which U.S. commanders hoped would be accelerated by the U.S. troop buildup that began in February and will be phased out by next July, is to get all Baghdad neighborhoods cleared of insurgent activity, placed under control by U.S. troops and then retained by Iraqi security forces.
Of the five additional Army brigades that President Bush ordered to the Baghdad area in January, the equivalent of 2½ are inside Baghdad, Fil said. The rest are north and south of the capital.
A key issue in coming months is whether the U.S.-trained Iraqi forces will be able to hold the line.
“The fundamental question (is): Are the Iraqi security forces sufficient to truly protect the city? I do not believe they are,” Fil said. “And that is why the government of Iraq has determined that we need to increase those forces. And the police forces alone will increase by more than 12,000 over time.”
One area of the city where security gains have been most limited is Sadr City, the mostly Shiite enclave where only “one corner” has a U.S. and Iraqi security force presence, Fil said. He said U.S. troops do not plan to move into Sadr City in larger numbers for several more months.
“And that will be done as we work with the local government there and the government of Iraq,” he said. Sadr City is a stronghold of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army.
Fil said that despite al-Sadr’s recent call for a six-month halt in Mahdi Army attacks, there was a spurt of attacks across Baghdad during the first two weeks of September by Shiite extremist groups.
“These hostile attacks continue despite Muqtada al-Sadr’s word of honor to halt these attacks,” Fil said. “And while we continue to show restraint in dealing with those who honor his pledge, we will not show that same restraint in dealing with the criminal militia elements who are armed and funded, we believe, by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force and who attack Iraqi citizens and our forces.”
Despite the slow pace of progress toward having Iraqi forces maintain control of Baghdad neighborhoods with minimal U.S. troop presence, Fil said he was hopeful that it would accelerate in coming months.
“We’re in a very tough fight down in East Rashid in the southern portion of Baghdad, that has been very successful recently, although it’s been a long tough fight,” he said, adding that he expects large portions of southern Baghdad to transition from the clearance phase to the control phase, and then to the stage where Iraqi security forces are in the lead.
He noted, however, that even after the extra U.S. forces in Baghdad are sent home next year there probably will still be some neighborhoods where security forces have not yet cleared out insurgent activity, much less progressed to the point where Iraqi security forces are in the lead.