WASHINGTON – In a sign of the Iraq insurgency's resilience, an American general said Friday that in his command area in north-central Iraq the level of violence is about where it stood prior to the January elections.
Maj. Gen. Joseph J. Taluto (search), commander of coalition forces in four provinces that include the key cities of Tikrit, Kirkuk and Samarra, said a segment of the insurgency that he called religious extremists has not grown in numbers but has recently "coalesced a little bit more" with a Kurdish insurgent group known as Ansar al-Sunna as well as with the Al Qaeda wing in Iraq that is headed by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search ).
Saddam Hussein (search) loyalists, whom the U.S. military calls "former regime elements," and Sunni Arab "rejectionists" appear to be less active in the insurgency in north-central Iraq, Taluto said. On the other hand, among the religious extremists there has been "more cooperation or passing of information between a variety of groups."
He said the religious extremists are responsible for a recent jump in the number of homicide bomb attacks in that region of Iraq. The number of those attacks grew from a monthly average of five to eight prior to the January elections to 15 in May and June, Taluto said, adding that so far in July there have been only two.
"The suicide bomb, of course, is the weapon of choice now," he said, adding that the number of attacks on U.S. and Iraqi security forces by roadside bombs, mortars and small arms has declined substantially.
Taluto spoke with reporters at the Pentagon via an audio link from Baghdad. He is the commander of the 42nd Infantry Division of the New York Army National Guard. His force in Iraq numbers 23,000 soldiers and includes two brigades of the 3rd Infantry Brigade as well as two National Guard brigades.
Taluto said U.S. forces in his area are making steady progress in giving more responsibility to Iraqi forces, but he would not discuss his estimate of how soon the Iraqis would be ready to assume full control. The transfer of security responsibility is one of the keys to eventually withdrawing American forces from Iraq.
"Iraqi security forces are already conducting over half of the operations that we do," he said. "They're either involved with us or they're doing things with minimal coalition support. And that's a huge accomplishment."
He acknowledged, however, that the commanders of the two Iraqi army division headquarters that have been established in north-central Iraq are handling payroll, personnel and other administrative functions on their own but are not yet exercising control of combat operations by their brigades and other sub-units.
"That's going to take them somewhat longer. They're not going to be in a position to do that for a while," Taluto said.
In all, there are about 50,000 Iraqi army soldiers, border control forces and police in north-central Iraq, he said.