Iraqi forces take lead in only 8 percent of Baghdad
Yahoo News/AFP (France)
by Jim Mannion
September 21, 2007

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Iraqi forces have taken the lead for security in only about eight percent of Baghdad's neighborhoods more than eight months after the start of the US troop surge, a senior US commander said Friday.

Major General Joseph Fil said violence has declined sharply in the city and more than half of its 474 neighborhoods, or "mahalas," are under the joint control of US and Iraqi forces, up from about 19 percent in June.

But the percentage of neighborhoods that have moved to what the military terms the "retain" phase of the security operation, in which Iraqi forces are in the lead and US troops are on standby, has remained stubbornly small.

"This is dynamic, and 8.2 percent is where we stand today," said Fil, who commands the US-led Multi-National Division in Baghdad. That compared to seven percent in June.

"These numbers will change as we go through the fall and winter here," he assured reporters here in a video conference from Baghdad.

But the general acknowledged that the Iraqi security forces currently are insufficient "to truly protect the city."

The Iraqi government is trying to increase the size of its forces and over time 12,000 police will be added in Baghdad, he said.

But in the meantime US forces have recruited and are training 8,000 "volunteers" to protect their own neighborhoods, the general said, making clear that US plans on securing the city hinge on them.

The shortfall in Iraqi security forces made the local reconciliation initiatives "so very important," he said.

Fil said he was confident that Iraqi security forces would strengthen sufficiently by the expected end of the surge in July 2008, when two and half US brigades will have been withdrawn from Baghdad.

The plan for restoring order in Baghdad follows a sequence of operations that are supposed to ultimately transfer responsibility for security to Iraq security forces.

In the first phase, combat operations are launched to "disrupt" militia and insurgent strongholds. Then US and Iraqi forces "clear" neighborhoods of armed resistance.

Once a neighborhood is clear, US and Iraqi security forces establish a physical presence to "control" them. In the final "retain" phase, Iraqi security forces are in the lead but US forces remain in position to respond if needed.

Fil said 16 percent of Baghdad's neighborhoods are still in the "disrupt" phase, and 30 percent are in the "clear" phase.

He said tough fighting is still underway in districts of southern and northern Baghdad, and US and Iraqi forces have not yet entered into the predominantly Shiite district of Sadr City.

Iranian-backed militias continue to attack US forces in the city despite a pledge by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to halt them.

"I do expect ... by the time the surge starts to be reduced, that we'll still have some areas of Baghdad that are probably still under 'clear', and there may even be some that are under 'disrupt,'" Fil said.

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