By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service
July 21, 2007 - The Marine Corps' top officer said yesterday he is "heartily encouraged" by the progress Iraqi and coalition forces are making in Iraq's Anbar province. "We have seen large numbers of Sunni tribesmen, at the encouragement of their sheikhs and their imams, come forward to join the Iraqi security forces," Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway told an audience at the National Press Club here. "We see that as a very positive thing."
The general said the past six months have seen a 60 percent decline in attacks, a 400 percent increase in enemy weapons cache discoveries, and about a 150 percent increase in the number of tips received from the local population. "Those things are essential for you to be able to turn an insurgency," the commandant said.
Combat casualties also are down by about 15 percent, he added.
Conway said Anbar province is still a dangerous place, but stabilization and security efforts seem to be working. Because of this, he said, the morale of the Marines and sailors in Iraq is "very high."
The general said regional security is a major issue, and he pointed to several ways to achieve it. "We would say that the government of Iraq has to be exercising a level of self-governance, capable of providing basic services to its people," he said. "We need to provide them a period of internal security, security against the regional neighbors, if you will, for the country to continue to grow and prosper."
Conway said he once had a college professor tell him that for a country to be successful, it needs five basic things. "It needs a fresh water supply, it needs arable land, it needs an educable population, it needs an exportable product, and it needs a seaport," he said. "When a country has all of those things, and Iraq has all of those things in spades, then you've got the potential for a very rich country."
The general said he is excited about the new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles now being used in Anbar province. "We're convinced, based on having watched the vehicle perform out in the Al Anbar, that it saves lives," he said. "We started out with an initial requirement of about ultimately about 3,700 vehicles, about 90 percent of that intended to go into the theater."
He praised members of Congress for allocating billions of dollars to provide the expensive vehicles. "The support from those ladies and gentlemen has just been fantastic, and we're very, very appreciative of that indeed," he said. Another new capability also entering the fight is the MV-22 Osprey, he said. The aircraft has had a "checkered past," he acknowledged, "but at this point, I can tell you the aircraft has tens of thousands of safe flight hours. It is proving itself to the troops; it's proving itself to the leadership."
The general also touched on Marine Corps recruiting. He said the Corps plans to grow by 5,000 Marines a year over the next five years, bringing the force to about 202,000 by 2012. He said it would take hard work to meet this goal while keeping standards high.
"People have approached me and said, 'You know, maybe you need to change your standards,'" he said. "A Marine expects for that person on his left and right flank to be every bit as good as he is, and they believe they are something special. And we need to keep those special standards in place to make sure that the quality stays high."