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US general in Baghdad cites damage to insurgency

WASHINGTON -- US and Iraqi forces have ''mostly eliminated" the ability of insurgents to conduct sustained, high-intensity attacks in Baghdad, the top US commander in the Iraqi capital said yesterday.

Major General William G. Webster Jr. said in a video-teleconference interview from Baghdad with reporters at the Pentagon that offensive operations by US and Iraqi troops in recent weeks had sharply reduced the number of insurgent bombings. But he cautioned against concluding that the insurgency has been broken.

''It's very difficult to know it's over," Webster said.

There were 14 to 21 car bombings per week in Baghdad before the May 22 start of the US portion of the latest offensive, dubbed Operation Lightning, he said. That has dropped to about seven or eight a week, Webster said, attributing the improvement to the disruption of insurgent cells and the availability of better intelligence.

''There are some more threats ahead," he said. ''I do believe, however, that the ability of these insurgents to conduct sustained, high-intensity operations . . . we've mostly eliminated that."

He said that about 1,700 suspected insurgents had been captured during Operation Lightning, including 51 foreigners.

Despite those gains, Webster said the future course of the insurgency was uncertain.

''When you're talking about an insurgency in a country like this where the borders are still rather porous . . .and there is money available to hire local criminals and others to participate in the fight, it is very difficult to get a day-to-day estimate of the number of people you're fighting," he said.

On the other hand, he predicted that ''in the next couple of months we will not see sustained, long bloody months in Baghdad."

Webster painted a positive picture of improving security in Baghdad. By October, when Iraqis are scheduled to vote on a new constitution, there should be a full division of Iraqi Army soldiers, numbering about 18,000, sufficiently trained to take the lead on security. There are now about 15,000 Iraqi soldiers, in various stages of training, in the Baghdad area Webster commands.

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