By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
June 8, 2007 – Kirkuk, Iraq's northern oil center, is an example of people of all sects, tribes and religions being able to live and work together in the Middle East, said Army Col. Patrick Stackpole, commander of 3rd Brigade 25th Infantry Division. That's why it is a terrorist target. Stackpole briefed the Pentagon press corps today via teleconference from the northern Iraq city. His brigade has been in Kirkuk since August 2006 and is working with Iraqi security forces to improve safety and security throughout the province.
Kirkuk is a rich prize with roughly 10 billion barrels of oil, which represent approximately 40 percent of Iraq's oil reserve and 70 percent of its natural gas production.
Saddam Hussein tried his version of ethnic cleansing in the city. He forced Arab families to move to Kirkuk to dilute the power of Kurds and Turkomen who constitute the majority of people in the province, Stackpole said.
"Kirkuk boasts a long history of peaceful coexistence," Stackpole said. "Kurds, Arabs, Turkoman and Assyrians comprise both the ethnic and religious diversity of the region, and we have not seen the same level of ethnic nor sectarian strife that we've seen in other parts of Iraq."
Part of this is millennia of living together and part of it is "the overall resilience of the people of Kirkuk not to allow ethnic differences to divide them," the colonel said.
The U.S. brigade is partnered with Iraqi security units, including the 2nd Brigade of the 4th Iraqi Army Division, the local provincial police and also the 1st Strategic Infrastructure Brigade. "We work closely with each to assist in training the forces and to maintain security, protect the people, infrastructure and natural resources throughout the province," he said.
The U.S. and Iraqi forces have conducted more than 900 partnered operations at the brigade, battalion and company level. There have been literally thousands of platoon and section patrols.
"These operations have served not only to provide security to the people of the province but also to prepare the Iraqi army and the police to eventually achieve self-sufficiency," Stackpole said. He said the Iraqi Army brigade is becoming a truly effective, capable force.
Police presence is also growing in capability and size, he said. There are now almost 2,000 police province wide, and the local police have primary responsibility for security in the city of Kirkuk, he said.
But the enemy is ruthless. "Across the province, we face Islamic extremists, former regime elements and Baath loyalists," he said. "While these organizations offer nothing but violence and rhetoric, attempts to discredit the government and coalition forces continue.
"Each day, through our partnership with the security forces, we work to counter these violent attacks by also extending the reach of the elected government. The Iraqi people's prosperity is the key," Stackpole said.
The Iraqi national government is working to improve basic services in the province, Stackpole said, and it is also working to spur economic development.
The straqtegy in Kirkuk calls for expanding presence in the province. The coalition brigade has created and manned several small patrol bases.
"With this increased presence, we are better able to deny insurgents freedom of movement and sanctuary while integrating more closely with the local population in building relationships that demonstrate our objectives are in line with their security and safety," Stackpole said.
And the strategy is paying off. "We've established freedom of movement on major routes in our area of operation, with focus on a road from Kirkuk south to Tikrit," he said. "We've identified and filled nearly 400 road craters and have increased our discovery rate of (improvised explosive devices) from 33 percent in September to 64 percent today."
The brigade has also captured 15 high-value individuals, who were responsible for financing, controlling, planning and providing weapons. "We continue to gather actionable intelligence targeting cell leaders and their conspirators," he said. "We're also seeing an increased commitment to security by the civilian population."
The road ahead in Kirkuk may be bumpy - thanks in part to Saddam's 'Arabization' of the city. An article in the national constitution allows the residents of the city to vote on their future. To be effective there must be a period of normalization, a census to get a handle on the people in the area and finally a vote.
The enemy does not want a stable Kirkuk. "We see daily IEDs, rocket attacks, kidnappings, murders and drive-by shootings, all used to intimidate the population and keep them out of the political process," Stackpole said. "Despite this, we see a resilience in the people, dedication on the part of the Iraqi security forces, and overall determination not to let the terrorists succeed."
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