The commander of coalition forces in western Iraq Monday said al-Qaeda may be changing its tactics and planning a large scale attack in Iraq. ( dpa )
But "stunning" progress in training Iraqi security forces and garnering local support in Anbar Province and elsewhere meant the US and Iraqi military would be ready for them, said Major General John Kelly in a satellite briefing to reporters in Washington.
Kelly also said that the US military was "very close" to handing over Anbar Province to local Iraqi control.
And he noted that the draw-down of the US presence had already begun, as reflected consideration being given to closing some of the larger coalition bases in western Iraq.
Security in Anbar Province is currently held by 45,000 Iraqi army and police officers supported by 30,000 coalition troops, Kelly said. Al-Qaeda had been knocked "down but not knocked out," and faced increasing vigilance by "local folks" willing to give tips to security forces.
Kelly conceded that al-Qaeda could reemerge in other provinces in the north, and there were "indications" that they may be changing their tactics to plan a "large media-type event." One indication, he said, was the increasing use of suicide vests.
Large bomb events have plagued Baghdad in recent days, and on Monday, five US soldiers on foot patrol were killed by a suicide bomber in central Baghdad - one of the worst attacks on US military since January, US military officials said.
"The good news is we don't believe they're at liberty to build some of these large bomb-type devices inside (Anbar) province," Kelly said.
He said he did not believe the upcoming fifth anniversary of the US-led invasion, on March 20, would be a target date for al-Qaeda. "They operate on their own time schedule," Kelly said.
The commander said that the US military could consider closing some of the larger bases because "we've really decentralized out into very small, company-sized bases, to maintain the contact with the population and with the civil leaders."
As for handing Anbar Province over to Iraqi control, Kelly said he and the Iraqi governor were going through various checklists, and would make separate recommendations up the respective chains of coalition command and Iraqi governance.
"We are very, very close, here in the province, as we sort out just a couple of things, equipment-type, in the province," and the relationship between the province and the national government, Kelly said.
One of the equipment issues, he said, was that provincial police needed a forensic laboratory to conduct their own investigations.
Kelly said violence had fallen to a "stunning" low level, compared to three years ago, when coalition forces could not go into the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi without a "gun fight going in, gun fight coming out."
He said al-Qaeda was no longer going after coalition and American forces, but rather after the sheiks, effective police officials and civilian leaders such as mayors.
That was where the "biggest threat" was right now, Kelly said.