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ARLINGTON, Va. — Politically motivated insurgents in north-central Iraq are starting to give up, but the area’s religious extremists are “coalescing” with national fundamentalist groups and continuing their attacks, according to the U.S. military leader in charge of the area.

“The insurgency in north-central Iraq is at about a similar level to pre-election [levels, in Fall 2004], but it has changed in its complexion,” Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Taluto, commander of Iraq’s Multinational Division North-Central, told Pentagon reporters Friday.

“Many of the former regime and Sunni Arabs that were opposed to the new government and the new political process have fallen away,” Taluto said in a live telephone link from Iraq.

But “the religious extremists — while they have not, in our view, in north central Iraq grown — have coalesced a little more with national religious extremists like Ansar al Sunnah,” Taluto said.

Taluto said the extremists are also linking with the “al-Qaida in Iraq” organization headed by most-wanted terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

And the religious extremists who “are responsible for the spike in suicide bomb attacks in north-central Iraq,” Taluto said.

In fall 2004, north-central Iraq experienced five to eight suicide attacks per month, Taluto said.

Those attacks spiked this year in May and June, to 11 or 12 per month.

But so far this month, the attacks appear to be falling again: as of July 15, Taluto logged only two suicide attacks in his region, he said.

Taluto, who is also commander of the New York National Guard’s 42nd Infantry Division, is responsible for security in four provinces: As Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk, which are mostly populated by Kurds; Diyala, which is Sunni and Kurdish; and Salah ad Din, which is mostly Sunni.

There are about 6 million Iraqis in the area, roughly the size of West Virginia, Taluto said.

The 42nd Infantry heads up the 23,000 U.S. forces in Taluto’s Task Force Liberty.

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