CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq – Insurgent attacks have risen in western Iraq but Iraqi troops are beginning to take responsibility for a bigger area of Iraq's most troubled province, the top Marine commander in Iraq said Wednesday.
Maj. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer said most of the recent increase in attacks in Anbar province occurred around the provincial capital of Ramadi. Progress in pacifying the Sunni Arab-dominated province has lagged far behind most of the country.
"Right now, much like all of Iraq, the attack levels are up," Zilmer told The Associated Press. "While numbers of attacks are up, the effectiveness, the complexity (of the attacks) has not risen."
Zilmer did not disclose figures, but said much of the increase has taken place in Ramadi. U.S. troops there recently established new bases to patrol deeper into the insurgent-dominated city.
"Initially there was a noticeable, remarkable drop in violence (in Ramadi). Some of that has rebounded since," he said.
However, Zilmer said the U.S. push had disrupted insurgent operations in the city.
"We are going to places, we are establishing a presence in parts of Ramadi where we didn't have it before. So things are going, generally speaking, well," he said.
The Iraqi army is slowly taking on more terrain across the North Carolina-sized province, where more than 20,000 U.S. troops are stationed. However, the areas of Iraqi responsibility are relatively small, and commanders estimate that two Iraqi army divisions are staffed at about two-thirds their authorized strength.
It's unclear when the missing troops will be added.
"I'm not aware of any timeline to do that, when they want to get to 100 percent or even higher," Zilmer said of the staffing levels. Iraqi officials have recently considered incentives to lure more troops to western Iraq, including pay bonuses.
Corruption has also hindered the Iraqi army as it takes its first independent steps in Iraq's most dangerous region. For example, U.S. commanders suspect officials often inflate payrolls to skim the pay of absent soldiers.
"I wouldn't tell you that those pay rosters are 100 percent accurate. We're aware of the infamous ghost soldier to pad out certain numbers on pay rosters," said Zilmer. "The challenge is how do you undo 40 years ... of social, economic, administrative abuse."
Nevertheless, the Iraqi army's taking responsibility for any territory at all in Anbar is considered an achievement, since the U.S. military has viewed the violent province as probably the last place in the country which could be handed over to the Iraqis.
With the slow development of the Iraqi military, Zilmer said there were no immediate plans to draw back U.S. troops from western Iraq.
"As the security level evens out — the security environment, the levels of attacks — when those things begin to level out then we're at a point to start discussing what our numbers are that are here," he said.
He added that Iraqi units were consistently evaluated to gauge their ability to fight independently.
"We're always taking a look back and saying, "Are they ready for it?" Zilmer said. "And if we don't believe that they are ready for it ... whether it's because numbers aren't up or their equipment rates aren't right, then we will hold what we got until we can get them up."
Despite the increase in attacks, Zilmer said troubled places like Fallujah and the border city of Qaim had recently calmed. U.S. commanders plan to move the last company of Marines in Fallujah outside the city this fall and turn control of the city over to the Iraqi army.
"Fallujah, if you will, is the flagship of where we are right now in Anbar. Ideally we could get all of our cities, our urban areas up to some level where Fallujah is now," Zilmer said.
The U.S. command is tentatively planning to hold provincial elections in the province in the spring of 2007. But many prominent Sunni Arab leaders in western Iraq have fled the country to escape the violence or U.S. forces.
"A lot of the historical power, if you will, individuals who in the past were those leaders of the community, many of them have left Anbar," said Zilmer. "So we're also aware there's that there is that expatriate community out there who are probably waiting for political climate to change, economic climate, security climate to change to point where they feel it's safe and secure enough to come back here."