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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Anxious Iraqis report return of Shi'ite insurgents

BAGHDAD — The U.S. military has determined that Iranian-backed Shi'ite insurgents were returning to Iraq.   

Officials said Shi'ite insurgents, including commanders, were returning from Iran and Syria to southern Iraq, Middle East Newsline reported. They said their return has sparked alarm among Iraqi residents.

"Things are stable, but there are still some bad people out there, and we continue to work to kill or capture them every single day," U.S. Army Col. Richard Francey said.

In a briefing on Feb. 9, Francey, commander of the 41st Fires Brigade and based in Iraq's Wasat province, said Shi'ite insurgents were returning to Wasat and other southern provinces. The colonel said Iraqi residents were reporting the return of the Iranian-backed insurgents to authorities.

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"So now what we are seeing, as some of the bad actors start returning, these people don't want to give up those freedoms and don't want to return to the way it was," Francey said. "They are calling on the tip line; they're coming to the front gate, and they're saying, 'So-and-So is back. Follow me. I will lead you to them.' It's exciting to watch it."

Officials said Wasat, with a population of one million, contained a large presence of the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army, which revolted against the Baghdad government at least twice over the last four years. In 2008, they said, commanders of the Mahdi Army and the Special Group, pursued by Iraqi and coalition forces, fled to Iran.

"Most of the big players decided to leave the area because it was very unsafe for them," Francey said. "And it remains very unsafe for them."

Francey said the Al Qaida presence in Wasat has virtually disappeared. He said many members of Al Qaida fled to Syria and have not returned. In October 2008, the U.S.-led coalition transferred security responsibility for Wasat to the Baghdad government.

"We pretty much stay on top of where they are running," Francey, who reported joint U.S.-Iraqi combat missions, said. "And they're pretty much staying on the run between Iran and Syria."

Francey said Iran continues to wield influence over the neighboring Wasat province. He said the Iranian influence, including trade, has been opposed by many in Iraq.

"I think there is a lot of Iranian influence that's ongoing," Francey said. "To what degree — I think it's still very manageable. You talk to the people on the street and they don't want it there. And there seems to be a pretty strong push with Iraqis nationalism."

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