Coalition Troops turning tables on Al-Qa'ida in Iraq

THE commander of Australian forces in the Middle East claims coalition troops are turning the tables on al-Qa'ida in Iraq, with the ability of insurgents to mount effective attacks steadily diminishing.

Brigadier Paul Symon said that while Iraq was going through an "awkward period" during the transition to a new government, the US-led coalition remained confident that the country would not descend into civil war.

Despite daily images from Iraq of carnage from suicide and roadside bombs, Brigadier Symon said military operations against al-Qa'ida and its affiliates were proving to be "very effective".

He told The Australian in Baghdad that the organisation led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was sustaining significant losses. It was now less agile and relying on much less seasoned fighters.

"We are seeing an insurgency that is diminishing in effectiveness in its tactics and techniques. It's trending that way. I think they have lost some of their better people," he said.

The figures on insurgents are tightly held, but military officials said Zarqawi forces had lost hundreds of fighters this year.

On a lightning tour of Baghdad, Defence Minister Brendan Nelson said the anecdotal evidence from Australian forces stationed in the capital was that the security situation had improved despite the surge in violence following the bombing of the Golden Mosque at Samarra last month. The bombing of the Shia mosque has been interpreted as an attempt by the largely Sunni insurgents to trigger civil war.

"The security detachment in Baghdad - the soldiers to whom I spoke - certainly feel that in the six months they had been there that things had improved a great deal," Dr Nelson said.

Dr Nelson said Australian troops "had made a difference" to Iraq and it was important to stand up and assist people in other parts of the world who were "being pushed around".

"When the history of this country (Iraq) is written there's going to be a special place for what Australia has done. In the end we have made a difference in Iraq."

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