By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 3, 2007 - Stabilizing Iraqi communities is the way forward in combating the insurgency in Iraq, the commander of coalition efforts in Ramadi said today. Speaking to Pentagon reporters via teleconference from Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, Army Col. John Charlton, commander of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, said counterinsurgencies are fought and won "neighborhood by neighborhood, with the focus on protecting the population and improving conditions in the community."
Charlton commands a true joint and combined force in central Anbar province. His brigade combat team consists of about 6,000 Army, Marine, Navy and Air Force personnel. In addition, he has operational control of 12,000 Iraqi police and soldiers.
The turnaround in Anbar province has been remarkable, the colonel said. Ramadi was the center of the insurgency a few short months ago. When the brigade arrived in the province, insurgents launched an average of between 30 and 35 attacks per day. "Now our average is one attack a day or less," Charlton said. "We have experienced entire weeks with zero attacks in our area and have ... a total of more than 80 days with no attacks in the city."
Charlton attributes this success to the close relationship that has developed between Iraqis and coalition and Iraqi forces. He said Iraqi security forces have been receiving tips from the population and have uncovered hundreds of arms caches.
It was not easy to get to this point, he said. When the brigade arrived eight months ago, soldiers and Marines launched large-scale operations to drive al Qaeda in Iraq and insurgents out of the city. Once that was accomplished, the command moved to holding the areas they had liberated. They established joint security stations to help secure and stabilize communities. At the stations, coalition and Iraqi security forces live side by side. They patrol together and learn from each other.
The population sees this interaction, and this establishes the perception of security in the minds of the population, Charlton explained. "Once they feel safe, the people begin to provide intelligence to the police, and security continues to improve steadily," he said.
Construction and infrastructure improvements also must occur in the areas for the efforts to be successful. "This is done through day-labor programs, small-business development, engagement with the local sheikhs and imams, and information operations focused specifically on that community," the colonel said.
He noted that an embedded provincial reconstruction team in the brigade is helping to build the economy and improve governance efforts in the province.
But al Qaeda has not given up. They have been defeated and driven from the province, but they want to get back, the colonel said. After the unit received intelligence reports that al Qaeda was going to try to infiltrate back into Ramadi, soldiers and Marines increased patrols in the south and found them June 30.
"There were about 60 to 70 well-equipped and well-trained terrorists who were moving towards the city in two large trucks," Charlton said. "They all had new equipment, weapons, and many were wearing suicide belts.
The terrorists' targets were Iraqi police and tribal leaders whose influence and help are crucial to the counterinsurgency effort. "We attacked these terrorists using ground forces and attack helicopters, resulting in the destruction of that force," Charlton said. "If this force had made it into the city, it would have been a tremendous victory for al Qaeda. We successfully defeated their attack, but we know that they will try again in the future."
Charlton said he is impressed with the performance of the Iraqi police and soldiers in his region. "Every day they get better at performing their security operations; most importantly, they are making their presence known and felt in the region," he said.
Police are recruited locally and stay in their cities and towns. Charlton said they are invaluable in identifying who belongs in the region and who is out of place. "A year ago, there were less than 200 police officers operating in two police stations here in Ramadi," he said. "That number has grown to approximately 7,400 police officers operating in more than 30 police stations and substations throughout our area."
He said the challenge is ensuring the police are fully equipped, paid and consolidated into police stations. The police rely heavily on coalition logistics and support. "We expect the equipment issues to improve soon, and we are working hard to get their logistics and command-and-control systems in place," he said. "One thing that is not lacking is the courage and the dedication of the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army in al Anbar."
The fight for Iraqi soldiers and police in Anbar is personal, the colonel said. "They know that al Qaeda is targeting them, their families and their tribes," he said.
Charlton also cited support the coalition has received from tribal leaders and sheikhs. "Their support of coalition troops and their distaste for al Qaeda has been incredibly helpful," he said. "If a tribal leader tells members of the tribe to join the security forces, they will join the security forces. Their support has been absolutely phenomenal."
Reconstruction and governance are priorities for the command, and progress is being made in these areas, the colonel said. There was no city government before April. In three months, the government has been established and leaders are providing essential services to the population. "In areas that were battlefields only a few months ago, city electrical employees are now repairing transformers and power lines; sanitation workers are fixing sewer leaks caused by the hundreds of buried (improvised explosive devices) that have gone off over the last few years," Charlton said.