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U.S. talking to Sunnis, fighting foreigners

Chris Tomlinson Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq has adopted a two-track approach to bring peace – concentrating military forces on attacking foreign fighters while trying to persuade Sunni Muslims to join the political process, a U.S. general said.

Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a senior coalition staff officer, told the Associated Press on Saturday that even though nationalists are the largest part of the insurgency, they are not the U.S. military’s primary target.

“We’re focused on the terrorists and foreign fighters because they are the ones conducting the most horrific attacks and are the most ruthless in the pursuit of their objective, which is to derail the democratic process and discredit the Iraqi government,” he said at the end of a week in which at least 22 American service members have died in Iraq, including 10 Marines killed Thursday in a roadside bombing.

Lynch’s job with the Multinational Force-Iraq is to work on big picture issues such as Sunni outreach, economic development, election logistics and media relations. His office is in the U.S. Embassy and he works closely with coalition diplomats and Iraqi officials.

The insurgency in Iraq has long been categorized into three broad groups: Islamic fundamentalists with ties to al-Qaida, Baathists who once served under Saddam Hussein and Sunni nationalists, who have rejected the current government dominated by Shiite Muslims.

In a speech outlining his Iraq strategy last week, President Bush said the coalition was committed to defeating “Saddamists and terrorists” but held open the door to those he called “rejectionists.”

“We believe that, over time, most rejectionists will be persuaded to support a democratic Iraq led by a federal government that is a strong enough government to protect minority rights,” Bush said Nov. 30.

Lynch said an important part of his job was to do the persuading.

“Not all solutions to the counterinsurgency problem are kinetic solutions,” he said, referring to combat operations. “We are aggressively reaching out at all levels, the national level, the provincial levels, the local levels, to the Sunni leadership … and encouraging them to encourage their population to lay down their weapons.”

Lynch said the U.S. and British embassies are involved in the outreach program, which works closely with Iraqi officials.

“The first mechanism is working with the Iraqi government to conduct these outreach programs,” he said. “It’s not (just) the U.S. doing it and the Brits doing it, it is best to have the Iraqis doing it and they are doing it to great effect.”

But while reaching out to the “rejectionists,” the military has directed its forces to the five provinces where a large majority of the attacks in Iraq take place – Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, Ninevah and Salahuddin.

In Anbar province, which has 5 percent of Iraq’s population, there are 26 attacks on an average day, while Baghdad averages 22. In comparison, 11 provinces average less than one attack a day, according to U.S. statistics.

U.S. intelligence indicates that most foreign fighters, funds and equipment supplying Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq organization flow from Syria down the Euphrates and Tigris river valleys, Lynch said.

Operations over the last two months have concentrated on shutting down those routes, with U.S. forces fighting through the border towns, accompanied by Iraqi soldiers who will set up permanent bases, U.S. commanders have said. More than 18,000 border control officers have begun taking up their posts all along the border, Lynch added.

The success of those operations is reflected in the drop in suicide and roadside bombings, Lynch said. November suicide attacks were the lowest in seven months and roadside bombings were the lowest since June, although U.S. military deaths in November were among the highest for a single month this year.

But Lynch said there was a clear propaganda aspect to insurgent attacks, and he expected them to increase in number and magnitude as the parliamentary elections approach on Dec. 15.

Attacks spiked in October, in what Lynch said was a clear attempt to intimidate voters ahead of the constitutional referendum on Oct. 15. Zarqawi is under pressure to do the same in December.

“He’s still out there and in the next 12 days he’s going to strike again,” Lynch said. “When (al-Qaida’s number two leader Ayman) al-Zawahri said half the battle is the battlefield of the media, he’s directing Zarqawi that whatever he does, he does it so it can garner international exposure.”

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