By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 30, 2007 - The Iraqi security forces are standing up and coalition forces are redeploying, but security challenges remain, U.S. officials in Baghdad said today. Some 2,200 Marines and sailors have left Iraq as part of the regular rotation, and Iraqi soldiers have replaced them.
Marine Brig. Gen. Charles M. Gurganus, ground element commander in Iraq's Anbar province, and coalition spokesman Navy Rear Adm. Mark I. Fox spoke at a Baghdad news conference.
The 2,200-member 13th Marine Amphibious Unit has left the country. The unit was part of the surge forces and held the area north of Fallujah near the Lake Tharthar region. The unit is not being replaced by another U.S. unit, Gurganus said. Instead, the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Iraqi Army Division is backfilling the area. The Iraqi brigade had been in Fallujah.
"Due to the improving conditions in Fallujah, this brigade has moved completely out of the city, and Fallujah is in the hands of its police, advised by some Marines that are still working with the police," Gurganus said.
The 13th represented about half of the surge forces in Anbar, Gurganus said. The 2nd Brigade soldiers are securing a difficult area, the general said. Officials consider it part of the outer belt of Baghdad. "Their deployment not only significantly increased security in Fallujah and Ramadi, but also here in Baghdad," he said.
The general reported that the Iraqi 7th Army Division – based in Anbar – is near 100 percent of its strength, and he that anticipates the Iraqi Ground Forces Command will assume responsibility for the division shortly.
This does not mean there are not problems.
"The development of the Iraqi army has been difficult, because we're building an army at the same time that this army is at war," Gurganus said. "At least in al Anbar, we have been fortunate that the young men have enlisted in the army. They have taken the training very seriously, and every place that we see them they are performing very well."
Gurganus said Iraqi jundis – the U.S. equivalent of privates – are brave and well-trained, but the forces cannot operate on their own. He said commissioned and noncommissioned officer leaders need to be developed. The young men are brave and very competent in what they are doing, he said.
"Can they step out and do it on their own? My answer to that would be no," the general said. Experience and leadership is the biggest problem. An army does not develop good junior and senior leaders without experience. The young men are receiving that training, often in combat, but it will take time, he said.
Still, "Iraqis are taking the lead in Anbar in planning and conducting operations with some advice from the coalition," he said.
Another problem is logistics. "That takes time as well," he said. The Iraqi army leadership is working on this problem, but they are simply building an infrastructure to feed, pay and equip and to maintain their equipment.
Fox and Gurganus said that while the military rules of engagement may be affected by a commission looking at incidents involving private security contractors, they expect the changes will be aimed at the contractors, not the military. "We are very careful and very explicit in how we target and choose to employ lethal force," Fox said.
Military rules are "clear and unambiguous," Gurganus said. "We have the best ROE we have ever had in terms of clarity, in terms of what's allowed, what's not allowed. So I think we're extremely happy with the ROE we have, because it is so clear and it allows us to do the things that need to be done."