WASHINGTON Security gains in Iraq's once-restive Anbar province are permanent but Iraqi forces need another year and a half before they can operate there without American help, a U.S. general said on Monday.
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Walter Gaskin, the commander of U.S. forces in the western desert region, said local tribes who turned against al Qaeda in Iraq militants to fight alongside U.S. troops would not reverse their decision.
"The positive trends are permanent," he told reporters at the Pentagon by videolink from Iraq. "The Anbaris are tired of violence."
The tribes' decision has been key in turning Anbar from one of the deadliest areas of Iraq into one of the calmest over the past year.
Gaskin said the weekly number of attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces had declined from 460 a year ago to 40 last week.
Although both al Qaeda in Iraq and the Anbar tribes are Sunni Muslims, the militants alienated local people with a harsh interpretation of Islam and poor treatment of tribal leaders, Gaskin said.
"They have created a schism that I don't think will ever be repaired," he said. Gaskin said the two groups were involved in blood feuds that could take generations to resolve.
He said the local population was providing plenty of volunteers for the security forces but it would take time for them to develop.
"They have to be trained, they have to gain experience," he said. "By 19 months, I see them rising to the level ... which is required for them to operate independently."
(Reporting by Andrew Gray, editing by Richard Meares)