updated 1/13/2006 4:11:41 PM ET 2006-01-13T21:11:41

The recent spikes in violence in Iraq are coming more from religious extremists, mercenaries and groups who oppose democracy rather than al-Qaida, the number two U.S. commander in Iraq said Friday.

Lt. Gen. John Vines, chief of the Multi-National Corps Iraq, told Pentagon reporters that the recent spate of violence — killing at least 500 people since the Dec. 15 election — will be taken into account as military leaders begin the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

He predicted there will be increased attacks when the final results of the election become clear next week.

“We know the jihadists will attempt to attack the institutions of government probably when the results are announced to show their disdain for the democratic process,” said Vines. “They think they have the right to impose their views on other Iraqis. So it’s very likely that we would see violence as the results are announced.”

Sunni Arabs are clashing with the majority Shiites over control of the country’s new government, and there have been complaints of fraud in the recent election.

While the last three days have been more quiet, as the country observes the Islamic feast of sacrifice, Eid al-Adha, Vines said the terrorists “have not given up. They have not gone away. They have not gone home.”

While the military still has not found the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Vines blamed the recent attacks more on anti-government extremists, including groups linked to the former Saddam Hussein regime.

“The indicators are that many of the events that we see are not related to al-Qaida in Iraq,” said Vines. “In some cases, they’re related to former regime elements and Saddamists. In some cases, they’re related to people who conduct violent acts for pay.”

The increased violence, he said, will be taken into consideration as the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, moves forward with plans to reduce troop levels there.

The Pentagon has canceled the deployment to Iraq of two Army brigades, which Casey said would cut the number of U.S. troops in Iraq by about 7,000, to some 130,000, by March. Casey has also said he hopes to recommend more reductions as early as this spring — assuming progress such as formation of an Iraqi government.

The base troop level last year was about 138,000. Additional troops sent in to boost security during the elections are leaving Iraq in the coming weeks.

Vines, who is preparing to leave Iraq in the coming days along with members of his 18th Airborne Corps, also offered an optimistic view of Iraq’s transition to a democracy in the past year, pointing to significant improvements in the country’s security forces and the three successful elections.

He said Iraqi security forces “are increasingly competent and in the lead,” with more than 35 Iraqi infantry battalions leading operations in their assigned areas. Iraqi security forces control more than 50 percent of Baghdad and have re-established a presence on the Syrian border, he said.

“These things take time,” he said, adding that the progress of the Iraqi government will determine the level of violence.

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