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Coalition Operation Frees Hostages Held Since November

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 23, 2006 – Coalition forces rescued three hostages held by terrorists in Iraq since November in an early morning raid today, a Multinational Force Iraq spokesman said.

"Based on intelligence that we recovered over the last 36 hours, an operation was planned and conducted, and those three hostages were rescued," Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said during a briefing from Baghdad. "I'm happy to report all three are in good condition."

The hostages, Christian peace activists, have undergone medical screening and are anxious to be reunited with their families, Lynch said. A fourth hostage, and the only American in the group, Tom Fox, was found dead about two weeks ago.

The kidnappers were not present during the rescue that took place west of Baghdad, Lynch added.

Despite Fox's killing and a car bomb that exploded in Baghdad today, the perception of an Iraq rife with violence is not accurate, Lynch said. "The idea that Baghdad is the center of gravity for the enemy's operations (is) indeed a valid idea," he said. "But the concern that all of Iraq is experiencing widespread violence is incorrect."

Fifteen Iraq provinces average fewer than six attacks a day, and 12 of those provinces see fewer than two attacks a day, he said. The other three provinces, Baghdad, Anbar and Salah Ad Din bear the brunt of the attacks, Lynch said.

Though those three provinces account for 75 percent of all attacks in Iraq, incidents in Baghdad between March 11 and 17 were down 10 percent, the general told reporters. Car bombings also decreased 50 percent during that period, to eight from 17 the previous week, Lynch said.

The enemy, however, continues to try to derail democracy and discredit the Iraqi government, he said. Insurgents couldn't stop elections or the drafting and ratification of the new constitution, Lynch said, so enemy fighters have refocused their efforts on inflaming sectarian violence.

Iraqi civilians are increasingly targets of this violence, accounting for 65 percent of casualties across the country, he said. "There is, indeed, a spike in what we term 'ethno-sectarian' incidences," he said. "During this reporting period (of) 12 to 19 March, we found across Iraq about 100 events that we would label as an ethno-sectarian incident."

Lynch described "ethno-sectarian" events as attempts to inflame sectarian violence. These acts have been aimed at all sectors of the Iraqi population -- Shiite, Sunni and Kurd -- he said.

Eighty-two incidents between March 12 and 19 are suspected of being ethno-sectarian in nature, Lynch said. In 58 incidents, individuals clearly were executed, he added.

"The enemy's still out there," Lynch said. "We're in a specifically vulnerable period right now as the national unity government forms and (the enemy) continues to conduct operations and inflame sectarian violence and drive a wedge between the Iraqi population."

A joint effort between Iraqi security and coalition forces is under way to ensure the enemy doesn't succeed, he said. Operation Scales of Justice is designed to counter the enemy's attempts to create a sectarian divide inside Baghdad, he said.

The operation, started on March 12, brought in a total of 3,700 additional security forces, including a coalition battalion from Kuwait, Lynch said. This increase allows for 300 patrols -- 100 more than before -- in the city. Iraqi and coalition forces also are manning about 130 checkpoints, he said. The operation's goal is to keep car bombs and suicide attacks from occurring in the city.

That goal was achieved for the past five days, during which there were no attacks using those methods, he said. The reprieve was short-lived, however, as today's Baghdad car-bomb attack indicates, Lynch said.

Another ongoing joint operation in Baghdad, Northern Lights, began March 21. It has resulted in the discovery of eight weapons caches and the detention of 18 suspects, including one considered a high-value target, Lynch said.

Operation Swarmer, an Iraqi-led operation, began a week ago in Salah Ad Din province and has resulted in the detention of 95 suspected terrorists and the discovery of 24 weapons caches, he added.

"What I continue to be amazed with is the number of operations, company level and above, that are planned and executed by the Iraqi security forces," Lynch said. "We're at a point now where a third of the operations during (March 11 to 17) were independent Iraqi security force operations."

Between March 11 and 17, 512 operations were conducted across Iraq, he added. The Iraqi forces that participated in Swarmer are a small portion of the 241,000 trained and equipped Iraqi security forces working operations across the country, Lynch said.

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