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Iraq Transition

U.S. general: Anbar insurgents mostly Iraqis

Story Highlights

• Insurgents fighting U.S.-led forces are loyal to al Qaeda, commander says
• U.S.: Rebels want to create an Islamic state similar to Afghan Taliban
• Bush's Iraq plan will send about 4,000 Marines to the region
• Sectarian fighting not the threat in Anbar as it is in Baghdad
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Most insurgents who are battling U.S.-led forces in Iraq's Anbar province are local Iraqis loyal to al Qaeda, and not foreign fighters, the U.S. commander in the region said Monday.

During a video news conference from the provincial town of Falluja, Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer said the insurgents intend to create a strict Islamic state, similar to Afghanistan's Taliban regime before the U.S.-led invasion toppled it in 2001.

They want "a caliphate state out here," he said. "They want to turn back the hands of time. It is antithetical to progress and, again, any positive future."

Although sectarian violence is not the threat in Anbar that it is in the capital Baghdad to the east, some 4,000 Marines will be sent to the region under President Bush's plan to quell violence in the nation, Zilmer said.

"What these additional Marines (will) provide to us is an ability to reinforce the success that we've seen in the last couple of months," the general said. "It allows us to get to some of the areas that we haven't been able to establish the presence we would have liked."

He added that the extra forces "will provide that additional time for us to develop the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police, which, as I said, at the end of the day are essential to the long-term security and stability in Anbar province."

The province does not "have quite the sectarian divide that you see in Baghdad," because residents are more than 90 percent Sunni Muslim, Zilmer said.

Sectarian killings between Shiites and Sunnis are common in the capital. Bullet-riddled bodies, often showing signs of torture are found in the streets virtually every day.

Although local insurgents make up the lion's share of fighters in Anbar, Zilmer said there are "certainly foreign fighters who are part and parcel" of day-to-day rebel operations.

He said foreign fighters are not "the overwhelming driving force that causes al Qaeda to function out here."

But Zilmer did say that Anbar's Sunni insurgents are "largely led by al Qaeda" and take their direction from the larger al Qaeda organization, which he described as "absolutely ruthless."

U.S. working with Anbar tribes

Since he took command of the region in February of 2006, Zilmer said he and the 30,000 U.S. troops under his command have achieved success through strong alliances with local sheiks and tribes who oppose the al Qaeda forces.

"After a year of watching this mindless destruction and violence and anarchy, it's finally settling in to many of the people in Anbar ... there's no future with al Qaeda," Zilmer said.

Those successes include completing more than 300 reconstruction projects worth over $50 million, Zilmer said.

When asked if he was concerned about whether his alliance with tribal leaders might alienate other tribes, Zilmer said local leaders support Anbar's fledgling provincial government, which he described as "infantile" but making progress.

Zilmer said the alliance with tribal leaders helped U.S. forces to take control of Ramadi, once a center of insurgent activity.

While parts of Ramadi are still "very dangerous," Zilmer said U.S.-led forces "control the entire city" following an operation launched last summer to restore security to the city west of Baghdad.

"We are beginning to see the signs of shopkeepers returning back to their shops," he said. "We see efforts to begin the reconstruction efforts, whether that's repairing the electrical capacity of the city (or) cleaning up."

He said because of the "growing police presence in Ramadi," U.S. forces can freely travel in the city despite some roaming bands of insurgents.

"If we need to go any place in that city, we will go there," he said.

"The enemy still has the ability to move around (Ramadi) and he will go where we are not and we understand that," Zilmer explained. "But, if we must go someplace then, again, there is no challenge to us that prevents us to go anywhere we need to go."

Other areas of Anbar are lacking in police presence and Zilmer said there are still some 3,500 positions yet to be filled for the Iraqi police force in the province.

He also said there are "many slots out here available for the development of the Iraqi army forces."


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A U.S. Marine moves through the streets of Ramadi on Sunday in the Iraqi province of Anbar.

SPECIAL REPORT

• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
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