BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – The conflict in Iraq is changing from a fight against U.S.-led coalition forces to an internal struggle for political and economic power, the top U.S. general in Iraq told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday.

Gen. George Casey acknowledged the security situation has become more difficult in the past few months, and said Iraqi leaders must find common ground on key issues if progress is to be made.

“We’re starting to see this conflict here transition from an insurgency against us to a struggle for the division of political and economic power among the Iraqis,” Casey said.

The general made the comments as he finished a visit to a northern Baghdad neighborhood to talk with local officials about an operation aimed at curbing violence in the capital.

Maj. Gen. Bashar Mahmood Ayoub, commander of the 9th Iraqi army, said the situation has deteriorated in recent months.

“These days, the violence is worse and the politicians are not supporting us,” Ayoub told the AP. He said it was up to political leaders to resolve the security situation, adding that the army could do nothing further for now.

Casey acknowledged the difficulties.

“I think the security situation is more complex and more difficult than it was in December ’05,” when Iraq held general elections.

The February bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, led to a surge of violence.

“It’s why I think it probably is somewhat more complex than it was back in December,” Casey said. “But it’s peaked and it’s come down again.”

The general flew from the fortified Green Zone in the center of the city to visit the Shaab and Azamiyah neighborhoods, where Iraqi and U.S. forces have been conducting searches as part of Operation Together Forward.

Reducing violence in the capital is crucial to any possible success in Iraq, Casey said.

Baghdad is “critical in the overall campaign. In military parlance we would say it’s the center of gravity for the country,” he said. “Everybody knows that. The bad guys know it, we know it, the Iraqis know it. So we have to help the Iraqis secure their capital if they’re going to go forward. And I think they’re committed to doing that.”

The operation is designed to clear the capital neighborhood by neighborhood, with security forces cordoning off areas and searching all buildings.

“The whole thought process here is to target the worst neighborhoods where the killings and the violence was the greatest, clear them out, impose Iraqi security forces back into the areas and then follow with economic reconstruction so that you keep the people looking ahead and not looking back,” Casey said.

Col. Mike Shields, commander of the 172nd Stryker Brigade which is conducting much of the security operation in the capital, said his men were searching and clearing 1,000 to 3,000 buildings a day.

In Shaab, local officials said the operation was mostly working. But there were some complaints. They included problems with deliveries of water, and access by teachers and doctors to some areas.

Part of the security operation is the creation of physical barriers around the city – in the form of berms, trenches and roadblocks – to funnel traffic entering and leaving Baghdad through 28 checkpoints. Viewed from the air, the network of irrigation canals and ditches almost completely ringing the capital is clear.

The barrier “takes advantage of the rivers and the canals around the area, and really just blocks bridges and puts checkpoints around,” said Casey. “The notion is push the bad guys out, keep them out, and then gradually go back and re-clear areas so that the people feel safe in their own neighborhoods.”

“But it’s a long process, it’s not going to happen in two weeks,” he said.

Inspired by Islamic history, the plan for a ditch around Baghdad is the newest twist in what has so far been a losing battle to prevent suicide car bombs and other weapons from entering the capital.

Casey said that for progress to be made, unity among Iraqi leaders was crucial.

“I think the greatest challenge at the moment is to get the Iraqi leaders to come together and resolve the four or five key issues that are dividing the country right now.”

He said Iraqi leaders must focus on purging the government of senior officials who were members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and on passing a law to govern management of the nation’s huge petroleum reserves.

Another crucial issue is federalism – Shiite Arabs in the south want to create an autonomous region like that controlled by Kurds in the north, but are opposed by Sunni Arabs who fear losing out on oil riches. A second key problem is the prevalence of militias.

“If the leadership can come together and resolve those, and then codify them in law so people understand that their rights are going to be protected, then I think we’ll start seeing people giving up the fighting,” Casey said.

AP-ES-09-21-06 1609EDT

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