WASHINGTON – Al-Qaeda may not yet be defeated in Iraq, but the group's terrorists are on the run, a senior official in the area said today.
"We've taken out a significant part of their leadership. We've gone after their foreign fighter facilitation network. We've gone after their financial networks. And ... we also have gone after, very heavily, their propaganda network," said Navy Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, spokesman for Multi-National Force - Iraq, via telephone to a group of military analysts.
As much as 80 percent of al-Qaeda's media structure has been destroyed, greatly hampering the group's ability to spread propaganda, recruit and gain financing for its operations, Smith said.
Reports in the country have shown a downward trend in violence against coalition forces, civilians and the Iraqi security forces, Smith said. He added that he remains cautiously optimistic, but he also warned of the lethality that still exists within al-Qaeda's network.
"Those are good trends, and we are seeing some very good numbers. But ... obviously we have a lot of work to do, as well," Smith said. "(Al-Qaeda is) still very much a threat."
For example, Smith cited a suicide bomber on a motorcycle who killed 27 Iraqi policemen in Baqubah, north of Baghdad, Oct. 29, in one of the worst attacks on Iraq's security forces in months. "Al-Qaeda still has a capacity to kill civilians and certainly go after infrastructure," he said.
Still, Iraqi citizens are continuing to mobilize their local village forces against al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, Smith said. So far, nearly 70,000 concerned citizens have formed 120 groups across the country, he said.
"That is making a huge impact on our ability to really understand what's happening at the local level as our commanders in the field partner with these groups. ... We're discovering more and more of the deep-rooted activity in those areas," he said.
This has translated into local commanders finding remaining elements of al-Qaeda operatives in communities, as well as record numbers of stockpiles of weapons. By next week, coalition forces in 2007 will have found double the number of weapons caches found in 2006, the admiral said.
"That's ... in large part due to the fact that civilians are becoming extremely more confident in working with local security forces and pointing out where things just aren't right," Smith said.
Most of the trust comes from the fact that surge forces are able to build confidence by working in the communities. In its fourth month, the surge of additional forces into Baghdad and other areas of Iraq has given commanders the numbers of troops needed to embed them in outposts in the communities, instead of having forces commute to the communities from large forward operating bases.
Coalition forces also are focusing on rogue militias who have splintered from the Jaysh al-Mahdi militia loyal to Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who ordered a cease-fire in August. Smith said the groups continue to operate much like al-Qaeda, kidnapping and intimidating local citizens. He said the rogue groups operate under a criminal, mafia-like, gang structure.
"We're reminding really all Iraqis (to) think about what side they ought to be on. The side that Sadr's asked them to be on, which is a peaceful side, is the right side to be on right now. And if not, we're going to treat you like a criminal, and we're going to hunt you down, and we're going get you. We're doing that with increasing numbers, as well," Smith said. "I won't say there are two fronts out there, but there sure are two main efforts."