Departing U.S. Commander Reports Progress in Baghdad

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 31, 2005

U.S. troops and an expanded Iraqi force have blunted insurgent attacks in Baghdad, the senior American commander in the capital said yesterday, but he predicted the contested city of 6 million people would continue to face "some chaos," making it one of the last from which U.S. forces can fully withdraw.

A growing focus for the U.S. military in 2006 will be to train Iraq's Shiite Muslim-dominated security forces to operate "within the rule of law" and prevent detainee abuse, while promoting a greater ethnic and sectarian balance within those forces, the commander said.

Speaking at the end of a year-long Iraq tour, Maj. Gen. William G. Webster Jr., commander of the 30,000-strong U.S.-led military coalition overseeing Baghdad, offered a cautiously upbeat assessment of progress against an insurgency that he said remains adaptive and complex.

"The number of attacks is greater, but the number of successful attacks is down to 10 percent" of the total, compared with 25 to 30 percent a year ago, Webster told Pentagon reporters in a briefing from Iraq. "The insurgency has weakened since the elections," with attacks down since the Dec. 15 vote to elect a new legislature, he added.

Military operations in Baghdad have cut by about half the number of car bombs and roadside bombs, while uncovering nearly double the amount of weapons caches, Webster said. As a result, he said insurgents are resorting more to drive-by shootings and mortar and rocket attacks, which "usually don't hit anybody."

But he acknowledged that U.S. troops are dying in the city at about the same rate as a year ago. "We're working hard to reduce that number," said Webster, commander of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.

Gains against the insurgency in Baghdad have come with what Webster called "tremendous progress" in transferring responsibility to the Iraqi army and police. Over the past year, the number of Iraqi forces in the capital has increased tenfold, and they now have responsibility for 60 percent of the city, he said. Half of the city is controlled by the 6th Iraqi Army Division, and 10 percent by the Iraqi special police, with American support.

Nevertheless, as Iraqi security forces have gained autonomy, evidence has grown that they have abused and tortured Iraqi detainees, spurring the Iraqi government and U.S. military to launch a recent series of inspections of detention facilities across Iraq.

The first two such inspections, of Ministry of Interior-run facilities, turned up "overcrowded conditions" and no signs of "recent abuse," Webster said. But there were complaints and indications of earlier abuse, he said.

In part to curb abuses, the U.S. military is stepping up its training of Iraqi special police units, which are relatively new, Webster said. In Baghdad, for example, each Iraqi special police battalion now has a 10-man American team advising it.

"The plan, over the next several months, is to increase those numbers, so we can spend more time with them to plan, train, coach . . . and conduct operations with them," he said.

The military's aim is to train Iraqi police, just as it trained the Iraqi army, to "conduct operations within the rule of law," he said. Preventing detainee abuse, while not the exclusive focus, is "certainly part of our goal," he said.

Another concern for the U.S. military in Baghdad is to promote a greater demographic balance and spirit of national service in Iraq's security forces, which are now predominantly Shiite Muslim and include militia with strong tribal and political loyalties, Webster said. "The process of causing people to set aside those loyalties . . . will take some time."

Over the coming month, Webster's 3rd Infantry Division will be replaced in Baghdad by a slightly smaller force led by the 4th Infantry Division, which is expected to continue to turn over portions of Baghdad to Iraqi forces while gradually moving to the outskirts of the city. But because Baghdad is the "center of gravity" for the insurgency and Iraqi government, Webster said, "this is probably one of the last places that we would pull out of altogether."

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