By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 5, 2007 - Tired of al Qaeda-committed brutal acts, armed groups of Euphrates River Valley residents are working with Iraqi army and coalition forces to pacify an area once known as the "triangle of death," a senior U.S. military officer said today. "We've really seen a dramatic reversal in the security situation," said Army Col. Michael Kershaw, commander of 10th Mountain Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
The emergence of these citizens groups about four or five months ago was a turning point in efforts to establish stability within his area of operations, Kershaw told Pentagon reporters via satellite from Iraq.
Kershaw and his troops have patrolled a 300-square-mile area southeast of Baghdad, once known as an insurgent stronghold called the triangle of death, for the past 14 months now. They're getting ready to rotate home to Fort Drum, N.Y.
About 16,000 vetted citizens have enrolled to form the armed citizens groups, Kershaw said, of which about half are now performing security patrols and checkpoint duties.
Cooperation with citizens groups has led to the capture of more than 85 terrorist leaders in recent months, Kershaw said. And citizens groups are finding and turning in large amounts of explosives and other ordnance that could be used by insurgents.
In fact, there's been "a huge decline" in improvised-explosive-device attacks on U.S. forces since the citizens groups began anti-insurgent operations, the colonel said.
"We're now able to work on projects in the local areas that help stimulate the local economy," Kershaw said.
As al Qaeda departs, roads are opening up, which helps spur local commerce and industry, Kershaw said. And local children are being escorted to schools without incident, he added.
"Government of Iraq programs can now move into areas that were previously denied to them by the insurgency," Kershaw said.
The formation of concerned citizens groups in his area appears to be an outgrowth of the earlier "awakening in Anbar," where sheikhs in western Anbar province had turned against al Qaeda, Kershaw said.
The area southeast of Baghdad was once a bastion for Sunni Baath Party members who'd been displaced from high office after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Kershaw explained. Al Qaeda moved in afterwards, he said, and the terror group struck alliances with the embittered Sunnis.
But, as in Anbar province, Sunnis soon became disillusioned with al Qaeda's brutal methods and religious philosophy, Kershaw said. The terrorists forced marriages between their leaders and local women and banned smoking and other cherished pastimes, he said.
"In every counterinsurgency, you're really struggling for the bulk of the people," Kershaw pointed out. "What we're trying to do is bring a sustainable, lasting peace to this area. And, to date, the results have been very favorable."
Iraqi military and civic leaders also are making gains in tamping down the insurgency in the region, Kershaw said, noting cooperation between Iraqi government officials and tribal leaders remains a critical element in effecting stabilization and reconstruction efforts.
"What we've done is really remove the perception of this area being 'the heart of darkness' for al Qaeda," Kershaw said.
However, the improvement in security hasn't come cheaply, Kershaw pointed out, noting that 54 of his soldiers have been killed or are missing, and 270 others were wounded during hard fighting against al Qaeda and other insurgents.
Two of Kershaw's soldiers, Spc. Alex Jimenez, 25, and Pvt. Byron Fouty, 19, remain missing after a May 12 al Qaeda attack near Qarghuli Village. "We've been doing everything possible to bring them back before we leave," Kershaw said, noting that search efforts are ongoing to find the missing soldiers.
Kershaw also saluted his troops for their successful performance of a "tough mission" in Iraq. "Our soldiers have truly performed extraordinarily," Kershaw said.