WASHINGTON, Jan. 23, 2008 – Even as al Qaeda in Iraq ramps up its torture of civilians and begins to employ women and children in suicide-bombing missions, Iraqi citizens are coming forward by the thousands to volunteer to help protect their communities, officials in the region said today.

This trend has made it more difficult for extremists to reorganize and has restricted their movement, Multinational Force Iraq spokesman Army Maj. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner said today in a briefing in Iraq.

“They are changing the atmosphere. It’s that courage of the Iraqi people that is changing the dynamic in such a way that it is making it more difficult for these extremists to perpetrate the violence and to terrorize Iraqi citizens,” Bergner said.

In recent months, al Qaeda has been increasing its use of women and children for its deadly suicide missions. On Jan. 20, a child walked into a tribal leader meeting and detonated a bomb inside a box of candy, killing himself and four others. Yesterday, in Baqubah, another young man placed a bomb disguised as a heater in front of a high school. The explosion killed the boy and another Iraqi, and wounded some 27 others.

“It is unclear whether that young man was a witting or unwitting victim of the terrorists. But it is clear that he was another young casualty of their violence,” Bergner said.

Other bombings in the past week included one at a mosque and another at a funeral.

In operations this month, coalition forces have uncovered torture houses and rescued two men who said they were tortured for 12 days. They were electricians working to restore power in their communities, commanders there said.

Still, despite the inherent dangers, Iraqis are signing up to join local concerned citizen groups across the country, and many are transitioning into the traditional security forces.

“Even amidst this barbaric violence, or perhaps because of it, brave Iraqi citizens are stepping forward from all communities to serve their country,” said Bergner. “These brave individuals join knowing they will face a ruthless enemy, and many have already seen first-hand the violence of these terrorists in their neighborhoods.”

On Jan. 21, nearly 2,000 former concerned local citizens graduated from the Numaniyah National Training Center and became Iraqi National Police officers. Bergner said the class represented the diversity of Iraq, with different sects, religions, and ethnic backgrounds.

“The national police are increasingly representative of the rich diversity of the Iraqi people and are taking important steps to remove the sectarian influences that have challenged the force over the last few years,” Bergner said.

This comes on the heels of the government of Iraq’s pledge to convert concerned local citizens into the traditional security force.

“The prime minister and the government of Iraq have committed to working with the concerned local citizens … to help those individuals, those that are qualified, those that are screened and vetted and capable of serving the Iraqi security forces, to transition and become legitimate members of the security forces of Iraq,” Bergner said.

Already there are several thousand Iraqi citizens going through that process, Bergner said. About 2,000 have completed the process and training and are already serving with the Iraqi police in western Baghdad. Several thousand others in Anbar province have already been trained and are now members of the police and army stationed there.

“There’s a commitment by the government of Iraq … there is a mechanism in place … and there is a process that is actually working to bring those who are qualified … into the security forces,” Bergner said.

Also, the government of Iraq is working to place those who aren’t transitioning into the security forces into other types of civilian employment under the ministries of labor, industry and minerals, and the minister of education, the general said.

“When an Iraqi citizen steps forward and says he wants to help protect his community, that’s an important step that needs to be understood just in the context of the courage and the commitment to want to now work to enforce the rule of law in their community,” Bergner said.

Bergner said that because Iraqis are tired of the extremists’ radical ideals and violence, more are signing up now than a year ago.

“I think it was very much a part of the Iraqi people’s collective judgment that those terrorists are not what they want in their neighborhood – their ideology, their violence and their corrupt oppressive practices, their desire to create a Taliban-like state here in Iraq is something the Iraqi people reject,” Bergner said. “I think that rejection … has been a critical element of improving the trend in security and the path that the Iraqi people are now on.”

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