U.S. and Iraqi commandos have recently killed or captured 34 of the 42 top leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq, crushing the radical Islamist organization responsible for the country's bloodiest violence.
Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said joint U.S.-Iraqi commando raids over the past 90 days had significantly hampered al-Qaeda's avowed goal of collapsing the Iraqi government and establishing an Islamic caliphate.
Toward that end, al-Qaeda in Iraq -- an offshoot of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization -- had rampaged across Iraq, sowing terror and destruction with suicide bombs, truck bombs, and grisly murders.
Odierno, speaking Friday to reporters at the Pentagon, said the joint U.S.-Iraqi counterterror operations will continue even as U.S. military forces are being withdrawn from Iraq. He said the withdrawals of about 12,500 troops a month are "on track'' to reach the goal of 50,000 American military personnel by Sept. 1. Currently there are some 88,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
All of the counterterror missions in Iraq, manned by U.S. Army Rangers, Navy SEALs or other special operations forces, are undertaken in conjunction with Iraqi special forces and all have been approved by the Iraqi government. There are no independent U.S. missions, Odierno said.
U.S. officials give Iraqi special forces high marks for gathering and analyzing on-the-ground intelligence. U.S. advisers help with communications intercepts and other technical intelligence methods.
U.S. intelligence and special operations units had been trying to get inside and destroy the organization for years, ever since AQI kidnapped and executed
four American contractors in March 2004 and hung their burning bodies from a bridge in Fallujah, in southern Iraq, launching a spiral of violence that set insurgents against U.S. troops and Shiites against Sunni fighters.
The big break into AQI came early this spring in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where the organization had fled and regrouped after being forced out of other Iraqi cities by U.S. forces during the "surge'' of 2007 and 2008. Several lower-level AQI recruiters were picked up, and through hard work, "we got inside their networks,'' Odierno said, snatching one high-level operative after another.
"And we've not stopped,'' he said.
"I think they're struggling now, but they will have trouble recruiting. They will try to regenerate, but we will keep the pressure on,'' Odierno said, asserting that "99.9 percent'' of Iraqis reject AQI's hard-line ideology. He said the AQI website continues to boast about violent attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops, but a close look reveals that the videos it uses are from years ago.
"But there are still some very dangerous people out there. We will keep the pressure on,'' he vowed.
Although overall violence in Iraq is at the lowest level since the war began, the main threat of renewed conflict stems from Iraq's political turbulence, Odierno said. Iraq's supreme court this week certified that the March parliamentary elections were fair and clean. But neither major party won a majority and both are negotiating to form a coalition government. There is concern in Baghdad and Washington that Iraq's Sunnis -- a powerful minority -- will feel shut out of the government and may resort again to violence.
Odierno expressed confidence that Iraq's army and police can handle any trouble that arises.
But he acknowledged disappointment that Iraq still has not achieved true reconciliation among the sectarian and ethnic groups that were on the verge of war only two years ago. "I'd hoped we'd be further along,'' he said. The threat of violence now doesn't come as much from AQI as from "what spawns from the political realm'' as the parties and tribes jostle for power.
The U.S. military in Iraq is nearing completion of a Herculean effort to dismantle and ship out the buildings and equipment that once supported 175,000 troops in full-scale combat operations. Already, some 18,000 vehicles have left Iraq, mostly by road to Kuwait and from there by sea to various destinations, along with 600,000 steel shipping containers of equipment, ranging from dental chairs to computer paper.
Sprawling bases such as Balad, once jammed with tens of thousands of troops, have fallen quiet with their cavernous fitness centers and mess halls largely empty.
Of the 500 U.S. bases that were active across Iraq a year ago, 126 remain today and an additional 30 will be shuttered or turned over to the Iraqi government by September 1.
As U.S. troops continue to depart from Iraq, contractors are taking over many of their responsibilities in helping train and advise Iraqi soldiers and police. At present there are some 90,000 contractors working for the U.S. command in Iraq, U.S. officials said.