CANBERRA (Reuters) - Coalition forces in Iraq are “achieving success”, despite May being the deadliest month for the U.S. troops in more than two years, the commander of Australia’s military said on Wednesday.
Iraqi and U.S. forces in Baghdad were fighting al Qaeda insurgents determined to fuel sectarian bloodletting across Iraq, but had uncovered large weapons stores and bomb factories, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston told Australia’s parliament.
“The violence is really in four of the 18 provinces. The other 14 provinces are reasonably settled,” Houston said.
“Sure, there are tensions and there’s occasional violence, but the big suicide attacks which have been the main feature of the violence over the past six months, they are being perpetrated by al Qaeda Iraq.”
Australia, a close U.S. ally and original member of the American-led “Coalition of the Willing”, has around 1,500 troops in and around Iraq, mostly in the relatively-peaceful south.
Houston said it was too early to tell whether the so-called surge in U.S. troop numbers under the Iraq Security Plan would quell the anti-government insurgency centred on Baghdad.
But success in western Anbar, where tribesmen have thrown their support behind U.S. troops, was positive. Attacks in the provincial capital Ramadi have dropped from 108 a week last summer to seven during the start of May.
“A town like Ramadi, where you could not have gone 12 months ago, is now a place where you and I could walk down the street,” Houston told lawmakers.
Australia’s Labor Party opposition has promised to withdraw Australian forces from Iraq if it wins elections expected around November this year. Australia has not had a combat death in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Houston said the Iraq Security Plan, which will see U.S. forces build to almost 150,000 by the end of June, should be given time to succeed.
“In terms of the level of violence, it reduced initially. It’s now sort of coming back unfortunately, but it’s still too early to tell, because the Baghdad Security Plan is now into the hard part of the fight,” he said.
The U.S. military said 10 soldiers were killed in Iraq on Monday, taking the total for May to 114, the deadliest month for U.S. troops since November 2004 when 137 soldiers were killed.
A total of 3,465 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have also been killed.