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WASHINGTON In the face of stiffening insurgent resistance, U.S. and Iraqi security forces now control about half of Baghdad, the American commander overseeing operations said Friday.
Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil, Jr., commander of Multi-National Division Baghdad, told reporters at the Pentagon that progress in securing the capital has been steady and that while he could use more U.S. troops he believes he has enough with the recent arrival of reinforcements to complete his mission.
"Some wonder: Are we progressing fast enough? Are we ahead? Are we on track?" he said in a video teleconference from his headquarters in Baghdad.
"This is a fight against extremists. It's a fight to put power back into the hands of the average Iraqi citizens and to give them a vote and a voice in their own future, without intimidation or fear. I see progress, a steady progress, in every neighborhood that we've cleared and then established a full-time presence."
A reinforced U.S. troop presence has been conducting stepped-up security operations since the launch in mid-February of a new campaign designed to tamp down sectarian violence in Baghdad to a degree that the Iraqi government is able to begin functioning normally and moving toward political reconciliation.
The top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, is due to present a progress report to Congress in September.
Fil said American and Iraqi security forces now control 48 percent to 49 percent of the 474 neighborhoods in Baghdad. That is up from 19 percent in April, he said. Two weeks ago his boss, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, said about 40 percent of the city was under control.
Fil defined "control" as "where we have our security forces there and we're denying that space to enemy forces."
U.S. and Iraqi forces are conducting clearing operations in 36 percent of the capital's neighborhoods about the same percentage as in April, he said. In neighborhoods that are neither under control nor in the process of being cleared, coalition forces are "disrupting" insurgent forces, Fil said.
He declined to predict how long it would take to get the entire capital under control.
Fil said the degree of resistance by insurgents in some parts of Baghdad has been remarkable.
"This is a skilled and determined enemy," he said. "He's ruthless. He's got a thirst for blood like I've never seen anywhere in my life."
At a separate news conference later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates echoed some of Fil's remarks about the difficulty of subduing the insurgents who have chosen to fight rather than melt away.
"We're dealing with ... a smart, agile enemy who adjusts his tactics," Gates said, with Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at his side. He was referring in particular to the insurgents' ability to kill U.S. troops with enormous homemade bombs often buried in roadways or hidden nearby.
In the latest such attack, five of Fil's soldiers were killed and several wounded in an unusually complex attack Thursday in the East Rasheed area of southern Baghdad. It began with the detonation of a deeply buried roadside bomb and was followed by small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire.
"It was a more sophisticated attack in terms of the way they planned it," Gates said without elaborating. "And we're seeing some more of that" as U.S. forces press their offensive in and around Baghdad.
Fil said US forces have encountered a "very strong" cell of al-Qaida fighters in the East Rasheed and Dora areas. Those are among several sectors in the capital where insurgents have chosen to make a stand, he said, and likely will remain a focus of intensive military action.
"To be sure, the enemy is fighting back, hard, in some of these areas that we've taken away, and they continue to perpetuate violence against innocents in their efforts to keep sectarian fires fueled and undermine the efforts of the coalition and the Iraqi government," he said.
Their weapon of choice is the roadside bomb, which the military calls an improvised explosive device, or IED.
Gates said he is pressing for faster production of a new military vehicle designed to provide better protection against roadside bombs, the leading killer of US troops in Iraq.
Gates said he is demanding an accelerated effort to field a mine-resistant armored vehicle, called the MRAP, and get it to Iraq in large numbers to replace the more vulnerable Humvee utility vehicle used by soldiers and Marines. It is so urgent, he said, that the first vehicles built will be flown to Iraq.
"The way I have put it to everyone is that we have to look outside the normal bureaucratic way of doing things, and so does industry, because lives are at stake," Gates said. "For every month we delay, scores of young Americans are going to die."
On Capitol Hill, leading Democrats said they plan to continue efforts to force a change in President Bush's Iraq policy.
"People are down on government for a lot of reasons, but the big reason is the war in Iraq," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
In July, the House and Senate will each vote on a proposal written by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., that would order troop withdrawals within four months and set the goal of completing the pullout by April 2008. Under the bill, troops could remain in Iraq to target terrorists, train Iraqi security forces or protect U.S. diplomats.
"We have many arrows in our quiver, and we are sharpening them," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
AP writer Anne Flaherty contributed to this report.