U.S. and Iraqi operations along the Syrian border have resulted in a significant drop in suicide bombings to only 23 attacks in November, the lowest level in seven months, a U.S. general said.
But Maj. Gen. Mark Lynch warned that al-Qaida in Iraq will likely step up attacks in the next two weeks to try to disrupt parliamentary elections on Dec. 15.
U.S. forces have launched a series of major operations in Baghdad and along the Syrian border since late September. Lynch said U.S. force believe al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi funnels most of his recruits through Syria into Iraq along the Euphrates River.
Instead of fighting through an insurgent stronghold along the border and then leaving as it has in the past, U.S. troops now leave behind an Iraqi military post to maintain security after a town has been cleared.
Lynch, who is an operations officer as well as a spokesman, said as a result the main entry point for foreign fighters has now been shut down and al-Zarqawi is having a difficult time carrying out attacks. At least 96 percent of suicide bombers are from outside of Iraq, he added.
“His weapon of choice is suicide bombers,” Lynch said. “In the month of November: only 23 suicide attacks; the lowest we’ve seen in the last seven months, the direct result of the effectiveness of our operations.”
Lynch said U.S. and Iraqi forces have discovered 301 weapons caches in November, the largest number captured in a single month this year. At least 117 al-Qaida members have also been killed or captured in 2005, he added. He said al-Zarqawi has suffered as a result.
“He’s struggling because we’ve taken away a lot of his leadership, we’ve taken away a lot of his munitions, he’s struggling because we’ve denied him safe havens across Iraq,” Lynch said.
He said exact figures were not immediately available, but that U.S. forces had also recorded a reduction in car bombs and roadside bombs, compared with October. The result was a 34 percent reduction in overall casualties, he added.
On Wednesday, four U.S. service members died in Iraq, three of them due to hostile action, the U.S. command said in a series of statements. The latest deaths raised the U.S. fatality toll for November to at least 85.
The November death toll was below the October figure of 96 — the fourth-deadliest month for U.S. forces since the U.S.-led invasion began in March 2003. But it still was higher than the 49 killed in September and the 54 in July, and it equaled the total for August.
The military rarely releases data on the number of wounded in Iraq, so Lynch’s statistics could not be verified.
Lynch said there would likely be an increase in attacks as al-Zarqawi tries to disrupt the election of a long-term government.
“He is still out there and his mission is clear: Derail the democratic process,” Lynch said. “He has 15 days to commit horrific acts of violence to potentially disrupt the democratic process. That ain’t gonna happen.”
Lynch said U.S. and Iraqi forces will continue to increase operations ahead of the election to guarantee a high turnout.