Casey says crisis after bombing of shrine has passed
WASHINGTON — The commander of Multi-National Force–Iraq on Friday downplayed reports of chaos and lawlessness in Iraq over the last two weeks, saying the country is not on the verge of civil war.
But Army Gen. George W. Casey said Iraqi security forces did fall short in some of their responses to the recent violence, and noted that the problems with local militias over the last few days have underscored the need for the Iraqi government to deal with their presence.
“It appears that this crisis has passed, but Iraqis remain under threat of terrorist attack from those who will stop at nothing to overthrow their democratically elected government,” he said.
He said officials were generally pleased with how Iraqi security forces responded to the Feb. 22 bombing of a Samarra shrine, taking a lead role in preserving order with assistance from coalition forces.
More than 350 civilians were killed in attacks following the shrine incident, according to coalition estimates. Casey called that “obviously unacceptable” but noted that the majority of those deaths came in the first three days after the bombing.
Overall levels of violence in the country, he said, “were comparable to levels the two previous weeks.” The country saw 17 suicide attacks in February, about half the average since October and well below the 70-per-month average of last spring.
Casey said eight of Iraq’s 18 provinces saw few or no problems as a result of the shrine bombing, which coalition officials suspect was the work of al-Qaida affiliates. Another eight provinces saw peaceful demonstrations and some militia activity, but no serious challenges for security forces.
But he admitted that Iraqi security forces were less successful in other areas, saying that Iraqi police forces took several days to regain control of Baghdad and Basra.
And Casey said both coalition and Iraqi officials are investigating reports of militia members being allowed to freely pass through checkpoints. Although the local gunmen did not take control of urban areas this time, Casey said the presence of the militias is still a major concern.
“It will take a holistic effort to get at the militia issue,” he said. “I do not believe we will ultimately succeed until the Iraqi security forces are the only ones with guns.”
Most of the violence over the last two weeks has been directed at or around mosques, Casey said, with 13 around the country moderately or severely damaged. Officials suspect local militias in most of those cases.