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Iraq Situation Improving, But Challenges Remain, Sanchez Reports

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 23, 2003 - The situation in Iraq continues to improve, but challenges remain, according to the commander of the coalition ground forces there.

"Noncompliant elements" continue to challenge the progress the Iraqi people hope to see, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez said in Baghdad Oct. 22.

"We fully expect that some of these terrorists and some of these noncompliant forces will continue to operate," he said. "We expect that they will get more radical and desperate as they continue to lose support and continue to lose resources to conduct their activities across this country."

During the past few weeks, Sanchez said, Iraqi security forces and coalition units have worked to prevent illegal smuggling of Iraqi resources and to maintain law and order. Troops and authorities from Iraq, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands and the United States conducted maritime, land and air operations in the southern part of the country to disrupt some highly organized smuggling activity in the Basra, Umm Qasr area.

Countering the smuggling effort involved significant intelligence gathering by the multinational forces, the general said, including the British, the Italians and the Dutch. About 2,000 U.S. Marines and sailors from the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit took part in the final surge of the joint operations, he added.

While Iraqi and coalition forces have arrested members of Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist group with ties to al Qaeda, he said, they do not have any confirmed al Qaeda operatives in custody.

"We do have some al Qaeda suspected-linked personnel that are in our custody," the general said, "and we're still trying to work to establish the positive links to that organization.

"They continue to operate," Sanchez continued. "We know that they're here. We know where they're operating, what areas they're operating in." He tied some recently conducted bombing operations to the two terrorist organizations.

Dealing with terrorists isn't the commander's only concern. "There's a couple of things that cause me to lose sleep," he said. "The first one is the pace at which we are making progress. We are making progress, but I believe that the progress needs to be expedited. We need to accelerate it."

That includes economic, political and security progress, and in particular, continuing to empower the Iraqi people to help bring stability and security.

"Once we get economic progress and the law and order capacities built in the country, (that) will go a long ways towards re-establishing a safe and secure environment here in this country," he said.

The coalition has a foundation of support among the Iraqi people, according to the commander. "If we give them the political hope, get the disenfranchised elements of the society back into the fold, if we get the unemployed back to working, then that will contribute to eliminating some of the anti-coalition sources that are out there," he said.

The overall effort, he concluded, requires "a synchronized, coordinated approach that has to be pushed very hard in the next three months."

Sanchez noted that coalition officials have taken steps to prepare for the start of Ramadan, Islam's holy month of fasting, which begins on Oct. 26 or 27, depending on the actual sighting of the new moon.

"We have made sure that all of our forces are well aware of the implications of Ramadan, what is important to the Iraqi people and to the Muslims in celebrating this period," the general said. "We're making sure that our forces clearly understand what the rhythms are for the people during this period and what the sensitivities are, so that we make sure that we are being respectful of the Iraqi people."

Coalition officials plan to lift the curfew for Baghdad during Ramadan, he said. "We're also looking at curfews across the rest of the country to ensure that, given the security environments, that if possible, we'll also be able to lift those."