By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 29, 2007 – Fed up with al Qaeda's murderous rampage in the region, local tribes in the Iraq's Anbar province have endorsed and joined local government efforts to drive out insurgents and establish security in the area, the commander of Multinational Force West said today. The newfound support has given Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer "guarded optimism" about the progress made in that region in the past year, and he said the extra Marines earmarked for that area in the president's planned troop increase will help secure that progress.
The past year has been a fight for the Anbar province, but troops have secured the area and are laying the bedrock for growth in the region, Zilmer said in a satellite news conference from Iraq.
Zilmer commands the 30,000 joint forces in that province -- Iraq's largest and also home to some of the toughest insurgent fighting in the country. His forces are partnered with 14,000 Iraqi troops in the 1st and 7th Iraqi Army Divisions operating in the region.
Zilmer's optimism comes after a year of what he called "tremendous change" that saw the densely populated and embattled region under siege by sectarian violence, and an al Qaeda murder and intimidation campaign aimed at killing locals and tribal leaders who supported the election or who did not resist the new government. Some reports estimate as many as 8,000 Iraqis were killed. This angered local tribes, who struck back by aligning themselves with the local governments.
Zilmer's hopes for the province are rooted in that support and the infusion of 2,000 local men into the police force, he said.
"They (locals) want to clear their neighborhoods of the disbelievers, the 'Takfiri,' the criminals, who offer no hope, no opportunity, no vision for a peaceful future," Zilmer said. "We think the security climate has shifted in a positive manner.
"It is this growing cooperation with the local community, this common interest in a better life for its citizens, so that they can again prosper, that gives me guarded optimism in the future of Anbar," Zilmer said.
This positive response comes after yearlong efforts by the U.S. and coalition forces to secure the area and turn around the economic devastation that left nearly half of the adult men in that area unemployed. U.S. and coalition forces have completed more than 300 projects worth about $51 million there in the past year, Zilmer said.
Also, U.S. and coalition forces have partnered with local police to secure the cities. They increased vehicle and pedestrian traffic in the cities by adding checkpoints and screening for terrorists. They built forward operating bases in Ramadi's worst neighborhoods to establish a full-time dismounted presence in the city.
Zilmer's formula for reconstruction is straightforward, albeit not simple:
-- Clear the city of insurgents in partnership with the Iraqi army,
-- Hold the city by controlling population movement in and out of the city,
-- Build internal security to the city so that the police department can grow, and
-- Partner with local civic leaders to further develop the police and the economy.
"We are beginning to see the signs of shopkeepers returning back to their shops. The growing police presence in Ramadi is a very positive element. We see efforts to begin the reconstruction," Zilmer said.
The majority of projects are aimed at rebuilding infrastructure and boosting employment. Concentration has been on fundamentals, such as restoring water and electricity services, reopening local factories and restoring the railroad, Zilmer said.
Progress also has been made in rebuilding the neglected agriculture market in the region, he said.
"Anbar province probably operates at something less than 20 percent of its capacity for agriculture products here. So this is a ripe area for development," Zilmer said.
But, although the number of insurgent attacks in the provincial capital of Ramadi has decreased, the road to security and economic recovery in Anbar has not been easy, Zilmer said.
"Make no mistake about it, we've been involved in a fight out here for the last year. This is a very active, a very vibrant insurgency that exists out here. We've been very successful in our operations over the course of the last year," Zilmer said.
And, despite a surge of support by tribal leaders, local security forces still suffer shortages. The Iraq army has "many slots available," Zilmer said, and the local police force is still about 3,500 short of being fully manned.
Zilmer said it all boils down to needing more time to allow reconstruction to develop in the region. "All these pieces are beginning to take a hold now. And again, going back to the guarded optimism, I think that's what's important to destroy the reason for the insurgency out here," he said.
The general said he believes it's important to "give these people some hope and prospect for a bright future."
"I think we're on the right foot, but it's going to take some time to develop that," Zilmer said.
Additional troops earmarked for that region under President Bush's planned increase will buy the region the time it desperately needs, Zilmer said.
"What these additional Marines provide to us is an ability to reinforce the success that we've seen in the last couple of months," he said. "It allows us to get to some of the areas that we haven't been able to establish the presence we would have liked.
"But at the end of the day, it's still about providing that time, and that's what these 4,000 Marines will give us. They will provide that additional time for us to develop the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police, which at the end of the day, are essential to the long-term security and stability in Anbar province."
Multinational Force West is organized around the California-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Forward. Zilmer said most of the work on the ground in the past year was accomplished by the Army's 1st Brigade, 1st Armor Division, and the 5th and 7th Marine Regiments organized into combat teams, with additional capability such as tanks, combat engineers, and other enhancements.
Recently, the 6th Marines replaced the 5th Marines and are responsible for the greater Fallujah area, and the 2nd Marines replaced the 7th Marines and are responsible for the vast northern area. The Army's 2nd Brigade, 28th Infantry Division, followed by the 1st Brigade, 1st Armor Division, is also part of the team and is responsible for operations in Ramadi.
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