By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
July 20, 2007 – The security situation in Anbar province has greatly improved in recent months, thanks to additional U.S. troops provided by the surge and the growing presence of trained and vetted Iraqi soldiers and police, a senior U.S. military officer said today. Statistics show that daily insurgent-generated violence, as measured by small-arms, mortar and improvised-explosive-device attacks, has decreased in Anbar since this time last year, Marine Maj. Gen. Walter E. Gaskin, commanding general of Multinational Force West, told Pentagon reporters during a satellite-carried news conference.
"I can report that the future of the province looks promising," said Gaskin, who has commanded MNF-West for about six months. But there remains "a lot of work left to do in al Anbar," he cautioned, noting al Qaeda in Iraq is still active in the province.
Still, trends show the surge of U.S. forces is having an effect on insurgent operations in Anbar, the general said, adding that he believes "we have turned the corner."
Gaskin said the province experienced 428 insurgent attacks during July 13-19, 2006. This year, from July 12-18, Anbar experienced just 98 extremist-mounted attacks, he said. Combined with other recent developments, the statistics demonstrate that the counter-insurgent strategy of clear, hold and build is working in Anbar province, Gaskin said.
Today, about 34,000 Iraqi soldiers and police in Anbar province work side by side with U.S. troops, Gaskin pointed out.
"We owe the lion's share of the progress we've experienced to the hard work, dedication and in some cases, bravery, of the Iraqi forces," Gaskin said, noting there are now Iraqi police in every major city of the province.
Gaskin said the combat-tested 1st Iraqi Army Division, "plans and operates independently in their own battle space," while the new 7th Iraqi Army Division is quickly progressing in capability.
"The Iraqi police, the Iraqi army and the coalition forces in Anbar stand together," Gaskin pointed out, as efforts continue to train and equip Iraqi soldiers and police to become self-sustaining.
The increase of U.S. troops in Anbar generated by the surge provides the capacity to go after al Qaeda insurgents, as Iraqi soldiers, police and militia push them out of the cities and into the province's hinterlands, the general explained.
Gaskin said surge forces have become a crucial part of the progress achieved in Anbar province, noting the additional troops have enabled his troops to maintain a persistent presence in an area north of Fallujah that has long been considered an enemy gathering point.
From that area, "there are multiple avenues of approach into the western belts of Baghdad," Gaskin observed.
The sailors and Marines of the 13th Expeditionary Unit have been blocking insurgent incursions from Anbar into Baghdad and its environs, Gaskin said, and they are denying the enemy the needed time and opportunity to plan attacks and to rest and refit.
Additionally, U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces in Anbar have been finding large weapons caches and car-bomb-making facilities on a daily basis, he said.
Gaskin said he's also buoyed by the fielding of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles into his area of operations. The armored vehicles feature V-shaped hulls that protect crews from underside blasts caused by armor-penetrating IEDs.
"We have about 200 of those MRAPs in al Anbar," Gaskin said, noting the vehicles are proving to be "real lifesavers." The addition of the MRAPs, he added, has enabled an increase of IED-clearance teams that patrol local streets and roads. The vehicles, he said, are being flown into Iraq straight from the factory to reduce fielding time. Gaskin anticipates that he'll have about 1,000 MRAPs by the end of this year.
And the recent development of Anbar's sheikhs turning against al Qaeda is more welcome news, Gaskin said, noting the province's tribal leaders are now encouraging their young men to join the Iraqi army and police, as well as forming government-vetted, anti-insurgent militias.
Most Sunni leaders in Anbar now view their boycott of the 2005 elections as a mistake, the general said, and they're now more amenable to working with the central government in Baghdad.
Gaskin said he sees more opportunity as well as challenges in the months ahead. Increased numbers of trained and vetted Iraqi security forces operating in Anbar, including additional police patrolling the province's major cities, free up more U.S. troops for mentoring duty with Iraqi military and police units.
Meanwhile, the building of logistics capability across the Iraqi security forces continues to be a challenging, but doable task, the general said.
At the same time, "we need to stay focused on combating the terrorist threat that remains very real and very dangerous," Gaskin pointed out. "But, we must begin by training both the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army in sustaining themselves with Iraqi systems and decreasing their reliance on coalition forces."
Pay problems experienced within Iraqi military and police forces are being addressed and fixed, the general noted. And the 7th Iraqi Army Division took control of its motor-transport regiment July 11, he said.
Training Iraq's military and police forces to enable them to equip and re-supply their forces "is the next crucial step" in their development, Gaskin said.
The "sons of Anbar" deserve credit for increasingly stepping up and taking responsibility for their security, and the improved performance and capabilities demonstrated by Iraqi soldiers and police serving in the province signify "an unprecedented achievement," Gaskin said.