By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
April 19, 2007 – Marine leaders here told Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates that they are "cautiously optimistic" about the situation in Anbar province during a briefing today. Gates called the situation in the once very violent province, "a good news story," during a news conference afterward.
"(Anbar) is a place where the Iraqis have decided to take control of their future and the sheiks have played a key role in making good things happen out here," Gates said, "along with the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army with our help."
While Gates was attending meetings and briefings, Brig. Gen. Mark Gurganus, ground combat element commander for Multinational Force West, spoke with press traveling with Gates.
Gurganus said conditions in Anbar have turned for the better. He said violence is down, tribal leaders and sheikhs of the province are signing on with the government, and the Iraqis are taking on the security mission in the province.
He also said construction projects are moving ahead, and that bodes well for the long-term security of the province. Provincial and local governments are embracing rule of law initiatives.
Two years ago, the only police officer in the province was the police chief of Fallujah. "Today, we've got about 11,500 police on the rolls right now and about another 2,000 that will become what we would consider county sheriffs back in the United States," he said.
The province has two Iraqi Army divisions that are gaining strength and are recruiting from the local Sunni population. Gurganus said the last three basic combat training classes have been full of local recruits.
There has been a lot of progress on the governance side, he said. The governor and provincial council chair recently walked through the streets of Ramadi, a feat unthinkable seven months ago. Last year at this time, there were 84 attacks in Ramadi per week. Now the number is around six.
Last year, there were four forward operating bases in Ramadi. There are now 32 Joint Security Stations manned by coalition and Iraqi security forces. There are nine police stations with 29 substations in the city.
"The police presence in Ramadi is the biggest thing that turned the city around," said Maj. Jeff Pool, public affairs officer for 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force here.
For the past four years, coalition forces have worked to pacify the province. All that effort is starting to pay off now, Gurganus said.
The sheikhs of the province are fully behind the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq, he said. The terrorist group frankly scared the sheikhs with their violent tactics against fellow Muslims. With the sheikhs concurrence, recruiting for police and the Army boomed.
Gurganus said key leaders in the Iraqi army and police are stepping forward and doing better in developing the soldiers and police on the beat.
Some spots in the province are rougher than others, he said. Things are far better in Ramadi and Hit than they were a year ago. Both cities have police and Army presence. The area around Haditha and Haqlaniyah still causes problems, but the recent surge of coalition troops has allowed more troops to be deployed to hold the area, and the Haditha Triangle is starting to come around.
In Al Qaim - a city on the Syrian border - the picture is very bright, Gurganus said. "We're looking forward to the opening of the port of entry with Syria in late July or early August," he said.
More can be done, he said. About half the promised plus-up of coalition troops have arrived, the general said. The additional troops allowed the coalition to place forces in every major population center in Anbar.
The province is almost the size of Utah - 84,000 square miles. "Even with additional troops you can't be in every place, all the time," he said. More than 90 percent of the people of the province live within five miles of the banks of the Euphrates River. Insurgents can be contained.
"As long as they stay out of the population centers they are not able to carry out their murder and intimidation campaign," Gurganus said. "As long as they don't have a firm hold on the population centers, then they don't have much of an insurgency."
Operations in Baghdad are causing some "squirting" of insurgents out of the city, he said. "We're positioned pretty well to handle the squirters coming out of Baghdad and we're also positioned to stop further insurgents from going in to the city," he said. "We deal with them here so they don't have to deal with them in Baghdad."
Drawing down forces in the province now would have an adverse impact on the gains made.
While the situation here is much better than in the past, Gurganus said he is still cautious.
"I don't want to jump up on the bandwagon and say everything is done and we're just waiting around now," he said. "There are still problems that we need to confront. We're doing some awful good things with the troops we have here now."
During his visit to Fallujah, Gates today met with a number of U.S. military leaders, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Peter Pace, Adm. William Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. David Petraeus, commander Multinational Force Iraq, and Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander Multinational Corps Iraq.
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