By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 26, 2007 - The Iraqi government needs to act now, not later, to solidify gains made in the war-torn country, the coalition commander in northern Iraq said today. Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon told Pentagon reporters via a teleconference from his headquarters near Tikrit that a key to success in northern Iraq "will be the government's ability to capitalize on the current concerned citizen movements, leveraging them as a bridge to Sunni inclusion and reconciliation."
Mixon, commander of the 25th "Tropic Lightning" Division, will turn command of Multinational Division North over to Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling of the 1st Armored Division shortly. The general looked back on his 15-month deployment to the country and noted many positive outcomes.
He said the greatest example of success is with the Iraqi army. When the 25th Infantry Division arrived in August 2006, all of Iraq's army divisions in Multinational Division North were operating under coalition control. "In other words, I had command of those divisions," he said. "By contrast, today all four Iraqi army divisions are under Iraqi control, and they now routinely conduct unilateral and joint operations."
Another example is in Ninevah province. The province, which includes Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, is under the protection of the 2nd and 3rd Iraqi Army Divisions. These units conduct security operations largely independent of coalition forces.
"This has allowed me to reduce our day-to-day security presence in ... Mosul to just one (U.S.) infantry battalion," he said. "Just a year ago, we had three times this force operating in Mosul."
In Salahuddin and Diyala provinces -- areas that have experienced awful fighting against al Qaeda in Iraq -- Iraqis are in the lead in establishing operations centers in Samarra and Baqouba, the general said.
"These Iraqi-controlled centers serve as command and control nodes for Iraqi army and police forces and the integration of civilian agencies," he said. "These fully functional centers operate 24/7 and have proven to be invaluable as hubs for information and security operations in these two key cities."
Coalition and Iraqi attacks against terrorists in the area have paid off, he said. "The addition of two surge brigades in our area helped us regain the initiative from al Qaeda in the northern Baghdad belt and in Diyala province, which ... was our most volatile province," Mixon said.
Intelligence-driven raids have captured or killed dozens of terrorist cell leaders and disrupted extremist financial networks in Mosul and Samarra. "In all provinces, the enemy is off-balance and unable to plan, finance or execute coordinated operations to near the level it had prior to the surge," the general said.
The total number of attacks in Multinational Division North have dropped for three consecutive months and are on track to drop again for October, Mixon said. "These security successes have restored the confidence of the Iraqi people, who are now stepping forward in many communities, setting aside tribal and secular differences and sharing a common duty of fighting terrorism and rejecting extremism," he said.
He said similar progress has been made in governance and in the economy.
But there are still problems, he acknowledged. "Successful operations in Anbar and Baghdad have driven more enemy forces into the northern region, which remains a coveted terrorist sanctuary and breeding ground," he said.
The command has long and porous borders with Iran and Syria that offer easy access for foreign fighters. Severe unemployment in the region creates an enormous disaffected military-age male population. "In short, Multinational Division North remains a fertile ground for an active insurgency if we allow it to continue," he said.
Northern Iraq is at a crossroads, Mixon said. "While some areas, some as Ninevah, are ready for transition, others, such as Diyala, will require robust coalition presence for the foreseeable future," he said. "Our efforts, particularly during the surge, have brought precious time for the Iraqi government to move forward in the political processes and to make even greater improvements in the Iraqi security forces."
The government must act now to solidify the gains, he said, by building on the Iraqi citizens' optimism created by the security environment. "A key to success will be the government's ability to capitalize on the current concerned-citizen movements, leveraging them as a bridge to Sunni inclusion and reconciliation," he said.
The government must confront corruption and the financing of terrorist criminal activity to further the legitimized government and to keep pressure on the enemy, Mixon said. "A key step in 2008 will be provincial elections in the northern provinces as the nation builds toward a representative government," he added.
Mixon said he is proud of the job his soldiers and their Iraqi partners have done. "My soldiers know that we have made a difference, and that our sacrifices have not been in vain," he said.