Iraqi military is ready, US says

General finds forces have ‘stepped up’; Violence escalates amid withdrawal

By Matthew Lee
Associated Press / August 9, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Iraq’s military is ready and able to take over security operations as the United States ends its combat role and prepares for a major troop withdrawal, the commander of US forces in Iraq said yesterday.

General Ray Odierno said Iraq’s military has “stepped up’’ to the challenge even as Iraqi politicians continue to squabble over the formation of a new government and acts of extremist violence are reported.

“We do believe they are ready to assume full operations in Iraq,’’ Odierno said on ABC’s “This Week.’’ He praised the Iraqi security forces for their professionalism and neutrality during the months of political uncertainty that followed elections earlier this year.

Odierno added, however, that it is crucial for Iraq to form a government after five months of delay, warning that insurgents will try to take advantage of the political vacuum.

“The Iraqis have to understand the importance of forming the government,’’ he said.

In a speech at the Disabled American Veterans convention in Atlanta last week, President Obama promised to complete the withdrawal of designated combat forces from Iraq by the end of August “as promised and on schedule,’’ despite the political impasse and tenuous security situation.

Violence has spiked over the past month as the military moves ahead with its withdrawal. By the end of August, only 50,000 American troops will remain in the country, to help train Iraqi forces. There were 140,000 US troops in Iraq when Obama took office.

Violence is still below 2008 levels, but insurgent attacks remain a daily occurrence, especially in Baghdad, preventing the capital from regaining normalcy seven years after the insurgency broke out.

Odierno acknowledged there were “ups and downs’’ but spoke of a “broad change in the security environment’’ as Iraqi forces with US assistance move against insurgents. “I think they can handle it,’’ he said.

A suicide car bomber struck a police patrol yesterday in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, killing eight people. Most of the victims were civilians standing in line outside a post office to collect the monthly stipend for the country’s poorest citizens, police officials said.

The blast occurred just a day after explosions tore through a market in the southern city of Basra, killing 43 people.

Police said the blast, which also wounded 23 people, took place between a gas station and an abandoned cinema in the city center. Of the eight killed, two were police officers, they said.

Initial reports from Ramadi said the blast was caused by a parked car bomb. Conflicting reports on casualties and the causes of explosions are not uncommon in Iraq in the immediate aftermath of attacks.

In Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, police officials and a member of the city’s security committee said the blasts Saturday were caused by a car bomb followed by another bomb placed next to a power generator.

The second blast ignited a fuel tank, according to the officials and Ali al-Maliki of the security committee.

In other violence yesterday, a car bomb exploded near a school and a cluster of stores in the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, killing two people and injuring four.

In northern Iraq, gunmen shot dead Abdul-Karim al-Jubouri, a local leader of a government-allied Sunni militia known as Sahwa, or Awakening Councils, that rose against Al Qaeda in 2006 and 2007. Jubouri was walking on his farm west of the oil city of Kirkuk when the gunmen struck, killing him and wounding two of his bodyguards.

Farther north, the governor of Nineveh Province, Atheel al-Nujaifi, escaped an apparent assassination attempt unhurt when a roadside bomb hit his motorcade in Mosul, the provincial capital.

Baghdad’s traffic police are demanding their own guards after at least 10 were killed over the past week in drive-by shootings and other attacks.

Security officials have blamed Al Qaeda in Iraq for the killings, in which gunmen used pistols fitted with silencers.

They said the militants target traffic police to create chaos on Baghdad’s congested streets and embarrass authorities who boast of improved security.

Many of the traffic police are unarmed, surprising given years of violence on the city’s streets. Now, they are demanding assault rifles as well as protection from the tens of thousands of heavily armed police officers and soldiers deployed across the city.

Authorities, eager to stop the killings, are moving quickly to meet their demands.

A top security official involved in an ongoing investigation of the killings said 13 suspected insurgents have been detained in the past few days in connection with the targeting of the traffic officers. He said initial findings suggest that the killings are the work of Al Qaeda and other Sunni insurgent groups.

What is not clear so far is whether these groups were coordinating the attacks, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Whoever is behind the killings, the attacks on the traffic police have shown that Iraq’s insurgency remains capable of striking in the heart of Baghdad, Iraq’s most heavily guarded city, despite the killing and capture of hundreds of leaders and members.