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ARLINGTON, Va. — Al-Qaida is lashing out at Iraqi civilians who have volunteered to protect their neighborhoods in an area southwest of Baghdad, Army Col. Terry Ferrell said Monday.

“The people have forced them out, so they strike back, they want to show that they still have some level of control over the local populace, and they can’t,” said Ferrell, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division.

Ferrell’s unit is in charge of a former insurgent stronghold the size of Baltimore which includes the towns of Arab Jabour and Hawr Rajab.

Since June, coalition troops have forced al-Qaida out of its former safe havens in the region, and more than 1,200 Iraqi “concerned citizens” have denied al-Qaida operatives the freedom of movement they once enjoyed, Ferrell told reporters.

“But al-Qaida is not letting this territory go without a fight,” Ferrell said. “We have one of Iraq’s youngest and most fragile concerned local citizens programs … al-Qaida wants to strike while they’re still weak, and over the past month insurgents have hit concerned local citizen checkpoints in two areas in our operational environment.”

In both cases, the concerned citizens stood their ground and were able to work with Iraqi security forces and coalition troops to defeat al-Qaida, Ferrell said.

In a Nov. 22 attack at Hawr Rajab, al-Qaida killed seven concerned citizens and two Iraqi soldiers, but the concerned citizens prevailed, he said.

“When I went into the town just an hour or two after the attack, the shops were open back up and the citizens, the leader of the concerned citizens program of that specific area was there on the ground and he had everyone rally around him,” Ferrell said.

He said it is “significant” that local Iraqis were able to turn al-Qaida away.

“At the end of the day, the concerned local citizens are still there, the leadership of the program is still intact, as a matter of fact today they are still manning their checkpoints,” Ferrell said.

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