News: General in Iraq 'Encouraged' as Elections Approach
Story by Gerry Gilmore
WASHINGTON - Violence in Iraq has dropped to the lowest levels seen since 2003 as the Iraqi people prepare to vote in new legislative and general elections slated for January, a senior U.S. military officer said here today.
"I'm encouraged now that violence is at an all-time low; that the levels are down to where they were in 2003," Army Brig. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, Multi-National Force - Iraq's deputy chief of staff for strategic effects, told reporters during a news briefing at the Washington Foreign Press Center.
The reduced violence in Iraq today, Lanza said, indicates "continued improvement in Iraq's security environment, through the combined efforts of Iraq and U.S. forces."
The 120,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq "continue to push hard," Lanza said, following the June 30 implementation of a U.S.-Iraq security agreement through which Iraqi security forces took primary responsibility for security within the country's cites.
U.S. combat forces today are conducting partnered, full-spectrum operations outside Iraqi cities and also along the borders, Lanza said, to deny extremists safe havens and reduce the foreign flow of lethal aid, and specifically foreign fighters, into Iraq.
"Our combined focus today remains on securing the Iraqi population and enabling Iraq to continue to move forward," Lanza said.
The success of a two-day U.S.-Iraq business and investment conference that drew 1,500 people and concluded here yesterday reflects the greatly improved security in Iraq, Lanza said, as well as the Iraqi people's eagerness and desire to move forward.
"What you have right now is Iraqis are truly embracing the rule of law," Lanza said. "And I think what we've talked about here in the last couple of days at this economic conference was a reassurance to U.S. businessmen that Iraq is a country that is administered by the rule of law and a law that supports the constitution."
Meanwhile, Iraq's citizens "have made it extremely hard for those people that would conduct violence in the cities to proliferate," Lanza said.
However, insurgents in Iraq still seek to achieve high-profile attacks, Lanza said, like the Aug. 19 Baghdad bombings that killed at least 100 people and wounded hundreds more.
The insurgents want to launch spectacular attacks, Lanza explained, because they believe such big-scale violence will incite sectarian strife and fracture the national unity of the government. However, the insurgents have failed to divide the Iraqi people, Lanza said.
In recent years, the general said, the Iraqi people have demonstrated their collective desire "to coalesce around being Iraqi."
The Iraqi government re-evaluated and improved its security strategy following the Baghdad bombings, Lanza said, noting that senior Iraqi government officials continued to conduct business the day after the attacks.
"So, there is an intense desire of the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government to move forward and embrace the fact that they are Iraqis," Lanza said. "And, that is something that is extremely positive, and we're certainly encouraged by that."
Meanwhile, efforts are under way to reduce tensions between Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Arabs over disputed territory in the northern part of Iraq, Lanza said. The dispute, he said, has allowed a "seam" to develop in which al-Qaida can operate.
The Iraqi government, Lanza said, has asked Multi-National Force - Iraq for help in looking for ways to mitigate some of the tension in the disputed territory. One of the initiatives being explored, he said, involves the bringing together of Iraq troops and Kurdish forces to man joint checkpoints in the disputed area.
The Iraqi government likely will approve and announce new initiatives designed to reduce Kurdish-Arab tensions over the next few weeks, Lanza said.
"I think it's important that as you start resolving the crisis in that sector, [that] you start mitigating the effects of al-Qaida to attack both Kurdish and both Arab people within that area," he said, "but more importantly [that] we start unifying the military and start unifying those forces in terms of the government of Iraq."
The sectarian violence witnessed a few years ago among some of the Iraqi security forces "no longer exists," Lanza said. Last week, he said, senior Iraqi military officers met to develop an ethical code for the Iraqi officer corps.
"That's a huge development," Lanza said. "That's a huge change in the mind-set in the Iraqi security forces."
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government is gearing up for legislative elections Jan. 16 and the Jan. 30 general elections, Lanza said. Passage of a new election law has been delayed, he told reporters, but Iraqi legislators continue to make progress.
"We're very comfortable and very hopeful that the law will be passed by the end of this month," Lanza said, "and that it will not detract from the ability to conduct the elections, in accordance with the Iraq constitution, by the end of January."