By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service
April 11, 2007 – The United States military is fully committed to its mission of providing the Iraqi people the opportunity for stability and security at home, no matter how long it takes, the top enlisted U.S. servicemember in Iraq said today. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Mellinger, senior enlisted advisor to Army Gen. David Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, told online journalists that even troops redeploying to Iraq for the second and third time "understand the importance of what we're doing" and accept repeat or extended deployments as a necessary and vitally important function of the counter-insurgency struggle.
"You can't establish safety and security from the air and from afar," Mellinger said. "It's got to be up close and personal, and that's really how we do what we do here."
Mellinger explained that under the security approach directed by Petraeus, consistent, one-on-one contact with the Iraqi communities that U.S. troops patrol is critical to setting the conditions for lasting stability in those areas. Valuable information and relationships gained by that contact, he said, are jeopardized by short troop rotations.
"When you start talking about what we're doing here in a counter-insurgency, you absolutely have got to be involved with people, and 'people' is personalities, 'people' is strengths and weaknesses," he said. "You don't learn that on short tours. It takes time."
Making the analogy to starting a new job in the civilian world, Mellinger said technical competence on the part of U.S. troops can be undercut by lack of familiarity with a new setting.
"Your first couple weeks you're still trying to find your way around the building, you don't know who to talk to, you don't know what everybody's capabilities and limitations are, so until you get all that sorted out you really aren't as effective and efficient as you could be," he said.
In the case of familiarizing themselves with the battlefield, Mellinger continued, the necessary orientation for reasonable effectiveness can take soldiers months.
"It takes you a while to learn the area you're operating in, and a 'while' could be a couple months, it could be three, four, five months," he said.
For the troops fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Mellinger said, the significance of the mission is more important than its duration. Their chief concern regarding deployment, he said, is knowing its duration in advance so that they can make the appropriate arrangements with their families and jobs.
"As hard to swallow or understand as it might be, longer deployments really, for the type of work we're doing, are far better than short ones," Mellinger said. "That's not a very popular thing because that means soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are gone from their family, their loved ones, their jobs and everything else for a longer period of time, but this isn't a fistfight. This is a marathon or a relay race."
A large part of success in that struggle involves freeing U.S. troops to carry out their mission, Mellinger explained. He said suggestions that troops stay removed from sectarian conflict are misplaced in a country where criminals, insurgents, terrorists and militia loyalists are often inextricably linked.
On the contrary, Mellinger said, it is impossible for troops to carry out their mission of providing security without delving into the sectarian struggle.
"If the mission is to provide safety and security in Iraq, then that means we stop bank robbers, we stop burglars, we stop murderers, we stop thieves, we stop black marketeers, we stop insurgents, al-Qaeda or otherwise," he said. "We can't differentiate or delineate because safe is safe. There (are) no in-betweens here.
"When you see things that are wrong you've got to deal with them, and that's what we have to continue to do here," Mellinger said, but added, "How we go about doing that is a whole different matter."
Mellinger explained that coalition plans will shift responsibility for day-to-day security to the Iraqi security forces as they come up to speed.
"We're working very hard to allow the Iraqi army units and the Iraqi police units to get in and do their work, and to do that as much as they can without our assistance," he said.
Success in the Iraqi Security Forces training effort varies by unit, Mellinger said, but momentum is building within the Iraqi army and police forces.
"We're having a great deal of success in some areas of the country with that, and unit by unit that ability to conduct combat operations unaided by us varies," he said, "But there's more and more of them that can do it without very much help from us whatsoever."
Linked to progress with the ISF, security in Iraq's 18 provinces also varies from region to region. Mellinger noted that security conditions and the strength of the ISF in some areas enabled transfer of certain provinces to "Provincial Iraqi Control" status, in which the Iraqi army and police have the sole lead in ensuring stability.
"There are regions in this country where there are virtually minimal levels of violence," Mellinger said. "Al-Muthanna province, for example, which we turned over to Iraqi control several months ago, is doing quite well. There are others that are still struggling," he added.
The command sergeant major pointed to al-Anbar province as an example of ongoing security problems, but noted that even there tribal sheiks formerly aligned to al-Qaeda terrorists have begun to make gestures toward embracing the Iraqi government.
"They've actually gotten together to try and throw out Al-Qaeda, and they're having some success in that regard," Mellinger said. "The real gist of it is they've had enough and they've decided they've got to become part of the solution."
Elsewhere, Mellinger said, success will come in time as the Iraqi army and police forces grow.
"Providing a safe and secure environment is not an easy thing to do," he said. "Each (province) has got its own unique challenges and successes and setbacks, and we just keep working through each of them as we can."
Coming back to the question of timing, Mellinger placed Iraq's overall progress in the context of the United States' own political history.
"For those who think we ought to leave tomorrow or the next day, I would just tell them that it took us 14 years to get our own constitution ratified -- 14 years in a country that wasn't at war internally," he said. "This country over here did it in less than a year and the Iraqi people deserve an opportunity to live in safety and security. And we committed to them that we're going to provide that opportunity."
It is belief in that goal that motivates U.S. troops in Iraq, Mellinger reiterated, despite long deployments and dangerous conditions.
"At the end of the day, we are committed to this mission here and we believe in what we're doing," he said. "I know you can go find somebody that disagrees with everything I said today, but I believe what I said and I'm committed to it."
(Tim Kilbride is assigned to New Media, American Forces Information Service.)
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