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Rice Says Mideast Peace Process Can Defuse Palestinian Violence

03 February 2007

Despite equipment problems, Iraqi forces preventing large-scale violence

Washington – Since September 2006, Iraqi army and police, supported by U.S. forces, steadily have taken greater responsibility for security operations in the Salah ad Din Province north of Baghdad, according to a U.S. combat brigade commander based in the region.

Colonel Bryan Owens, speaking by phone to Pentagon reporters in Washington February 2, said an Iraqi police unit, working independently, raided an al-Qaida training camp outside the city of Baiji, Iraq, within the last week. Two police officers died in the raid, but 59 suspected insurgents were apprehended and two senior al-Qaida leaders were killed.

"The Iraqi security forces are in the lead," Owens said. "We’ve continued to partner with them, and as they further develop their capabilities and assume more and more responsibility, we will transition to more of a supporting role."

In a separate February 2 news conference, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the United States has outlined clear benchmarks that the Iraqi government should meet for continued U.S. military support. (See related article.)

Owens, who is based in Tikrit, Iraq, said as coalition forces conduct increased security operations in Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi troops will move to interdict armed militias and al-Qaida elements attempting to escape north from the Iraqi capital.

Owens praised the provincial leadership in Salah ad Din Province for its work in preventing large-scale violence in the region, despite obvious sectarian tensions in the region where the February 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra triggered much of the current ethnic and religious strife. (See related article.)

After an outbreak of violence last year in Balad, a predominantly Shiite city located within the so-called Sunni Triangle, Owens said the governor brought together officials from across the province and won promises from tribal and religious leaders to stop sectarian reprisals.

"Since October the Iraqis have worked diligently in stabilizing the situation in Balad," Owens said. "And though there are sectarian tensions, the sectarian violence has ceased."

Owens listed a number of positive developments in reconstruction, such as the work of provincial reconstruction teams in establishing vocational and technical training schools now producing more than 2,000 graduates; private banks that are opening branches and making loans to small businesses; and greater transparency and accountability in the provincial council proceedings.

"They even invite the media to these sessions now," Owens commented. (See related article.)

Asked about the chief challenges that U.S. and Iraqi forces still confront, Owens cited the continuing threat of al-Qaida and former regime elements.

"A credible Iraqi police force and the rule of law is our Number 1 priority," Owens said.

Another obstacle is combating corruption at the Baiji oil refinery, where the country is losing several million dollars of oil revenue a day, Owens said.

According to Owens, another continuing problem has been bureaucratic obstacles to the release of large military supplies and arms. If the logistical bottleneck could be broken, Owens said he believes the Iraqi army and police could make rapid progress.

"They are willing," he said. "They've got the will to fight. We also have taught them and given them skills to fight, and so now we just need to get the equipment and the supplies flowing."

A transcript of the briefing by Colonel Owens is available on the Department of Defense Web site.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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