Aussie Commander: We are winning in Iraq
THE commander of Australian forces in the Middle East claims coalition troops are turning the tables on al-Qaeda in Iraq, with insurgents' ability to mount effective attacks steadily diminishing.
Brigadier Paul Symon said that while Iraq was going through an "awkward period" during the transition to a new government, the US-led coalition remained confident that the country would not descend into civil war.
Despite daily images from Iraq of carnage from suicide and roadside bombs, Brigadier Symon said military operations against al-Qaeda and its affiliates were proving to be "very effective".
He said in Baghdad that the organisation led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was sustaining significant losses. He said it was now less agile and relying on much less seasoned fighters.
"We are seeing an insurgency that is diminishing in effectiveness in its tactics and techniques. It's trending that way. I think they have lost some of their better people," he said.
The figures on insurgents were tightly held, but military officials said Zarqawi forces had lost hundreds of fighters this year.
On a lightning tour of Baghdad, Defence Minister Brendan Nelson said the anecdotal evidence from Australian forces stationed in the capital was that the security situation had improved despite the surge in violence following the bombing of the Golden Mosque at Samarra last month. The bombing of the Shia mosque has been interpreted as an attempt by the largely Sunni insurgents to trigger civil war.
"The security detachment in Baghdad - the soldiers to whom I spoke - certainly feel that in the six months they had been there that things had improved a great deal," Dr Nelson said.
But Hugh White, head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, said there was no evidence that the Iraq insurgency was in decline.
"I don't think it's correct to describe the insurgency as primarily al-Qaeda-motivated. I think there's very little evidence to suggest that the insurgency is being defeated," said Mr White, a former Defence Department deputy secretary. "Most of the trends that measure the scale of the insurgency suggest that the insurgency remains a very serious challenge."
Dr Nelson visited Baghdad to meet Australian forces stationed there and to hold talks with his Iraqi counterpart, Sadoun Dulime, General George Casey, the senior US commander in Iraq, and US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.
Dr Nelson, accompanied by Chief of Defence Forces Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, flew in a US Black Hawk helicopter into the city's international zone from Camp Victory, the big US base near the international airport.
In central Baghdad, Dr Nelson's party was met by ambassador Howard Brown and toured the new Australian embassy as well as the headquarters of the security detachment, which provides protection for Australian officials.
Dr Nelson said Dr Sadoun had expressed hope that Australian soldiers would continue to train the new Iraqi army. In al-Muthanna, Australian advisers have nearly completed training of the army's second brigade, which will eventually comprise about 1700 men.
In a brief talk to troops at the Secdet HQ, Dr Nelson pledged to work for the wellbeing of the defence force and strongly defended the current system of military justice. "We don't ever want to have a military justice system that is contaminated by the same nonsense that goes on in the civil courts," he said.
Dr Nelson said Australian troops "had made a difference" to Iraq and it was important to stand up and assist people in other parts of the world who were "being pushed around".
"When the history of this country (Iraq) is written there's going to be a special place for what Australia has done. In the end we have made a difference in Iraq."
Brigadier Symon said the timetable for a phased troop withdrawal depended on the emergence of a stable government in the country and could be carried out province by province. Late 2007 was the "right aiming point" for a withdrawal of coalition forces, he said.
Posted by: Oztralian 2006-03-08