By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 3, 2007 - The surge of additional forces into Baghdad and other areas of Iraq is working, a top general commanding coalition forces there said yesterday. Even as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan continues, levels of violence in Iraq have dropped, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, said at the National Press Club here. The surge allowed Iraqi and coalition officials to wrest whole provinces from extremist grasp.
In December, President Bush accepted recommendations of military leaders to place five more combat brigades and their supporting complements in and around Baghdad. More troops went into Anbar province, and Iraqi forces also bulked up in Baghdad and surrounding areas. "The full complement of surge forces were in place by mid-June and provided us with significant flexibility and operational reach," Odierno said. "The trends we have seen over the past three and a half months since the surge was completed are encouraging, and to this point they've been consistent.
"Violence throughout the country has dropped to a level not even seen before the first bombing of the Golden Mosque in 2006," he continued. "Last week, we saw a slight rise in attacks as al Qaeda attempted its own Ramadan surge, but for the large part, Iraqi security forces, as well as coalition forces, were successful in interdicting most of them."
In past years, Ramadan meant extremist attacks, the general said. Not so this year. "Attacks have decreased, and signs of normalcy across Iraq are starting to appear," he said.
The surge has allowed troops to disrupt al Qaeda in Iraq safe areas and curbed the terrorist group's freedom of movement.
"With many of its top leaders eliminated, the remaining al Qaeda in Iraq leadership is increasingly being forced away from Baghdad," Odierno said. "Over the past eight to nine months, numerous population centers have been liberated from extremist control, including Baqubah, al Qaim, Arab Jabour, Ramadi, Fallujah and Abu Ghraib."
None of this would have been possible without the bloodthirsty efforts of the terrorists themselves. Al Qaeda is losing its internal support within Iraq because of its indiscriminate targeting of civilians, its reliance on foreign leadership, and the Taliban-like mentality that suppresses the Iraqi people, Odierno said.
The group remains dangerous and can still lash out with spectacular attacks. But the Iraqi people have rejected al Qaeda in Iraq, and the battle now shifts to bringing promised economic and political aid to the people, "or we could squander this opportunity that we've developed," Odierno said.
While the U.S. provided considerable support, operations in Baghdad were Iraqi-led. The surge gave commanders the presence in Iraq to uproot extremists and keep them out. "Unlike previous operations, we now have the forces to maintain our gains and prevent extremists from returning to these safe havens and sanctuaries," Odierno said.
Iraqi security forces continue to grow and improve, and they are another important reason for the improved security situation, the general said. "They are slowly shouldering more of the burden and are fighting and taking casualties," he said. "Their command and control, as well as their targeting, gets better with each passing day."
Odierno cited the work of Iraqi security forces in Karbala after an attack by Shiia extremists killed 100 pilgrims and wounded 100 more. He also said he is pleased with progress in Mosul and Kirkuk, where coalition forces are essentially in "overwatch" as Iraqis carry out operations. "It is imperative that we continue to transition security responsibilities to the Iraqis," he said. "But it's equally important that we do so in a cautious and thoughtful manner."
This is going to take time, Odierno said. Iraqi forces need time to grow more leaders; they need more time to develop logistics and handle transportation. "And there is still some sectarianism that the government of Iraq, as well as us, are working towards eliminating," he said. "These issues must be addressed and receive the complete attention of the Iraqi leadership, and I think that they've done that, and they will continue to work hard to eliminate this."
The surge has allowed engagement with tribes and communities at the tactical level, and this "bottom-up process" has gotten Iraqis involved in maintaining security in their own neighborhoods, Odierno said. "Local reconciliation is playing a key role and continues to gain momentum," he said. "Iraqis are getting involved in their own safety in a clear sign that they are tiring of violence as well as extremist activities."
Cooperation between the people and their security forces is directly proportional to improved security. "In those areas where local Iraqis are providing intelligence, volunteering to serve in security forces, and pledging their loyalty to the government of Iraq, we have witnessed dramatic improvements in the security of the people of Iraq," Odierno said. "These volunteers want legitimacy, and the government of Iraq is taking notice and beginning to incorporate them into the Iraqi security forces."
Last week, more than 1,700 volunteers in Abu Ghraib graduated from police training and are providing security in their own neighborhoods as part of the official Iraqi police force, the general said. "While mostly Sunni, we are also beginning to see Shiia participation in some of these local security efforts, as they notice the progress being made. We must be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities we are presented with, many of which will no doubt be difficult to predict."
The general said that no one would have predicted the dramatic turnaround in Anbar province. "Anbar now stands as an inspiring example to the rest of the country for what is possible, as citizens come together to reject extremist behavior," he said.
Less than a year ago, coalition intelligence officials said the province was as good as lost. "Today, the situation has improved to the point where the awakening movement that began turning the tide in Anbar was able to weather the loss of its charismatic leader, Sheikh Abdul Sattar, without missing a beat," Odierno said.
Attacks across the province have fallen from around 350 in a single week a year ago to just 37 last week, he said.
Odierno said success in Anbar is due to the surge, improved Iraqi forces, and local engagement. "Iraqis have taken notice, and from Diyala to Ghazalia, to Mahmudiyah and elsewhere, concerned citizens are reaching out to become a part of improving Iraq's future for their children," he said.
Still, the country is not out of the desert yet. "The surge has created time and space necessary for the government of Iraq to move forward." the general said. "The military aspects of our strategy have achieved momentum, but we have not yet achieved what I would characterize as irreversible momentum. We fully expect the mixed sectarian areas and fault lines to be the last to settle. That is where we will continue to maintain higher troop concentrations. There will be challenges to the successes in Anbar and other places, and it will be up to the Iraqi security force, with our support, to meet these challenges."
Odierno said the time is now for the Iraqi government to aggressively provide essential services to their fellow citizens, no matter what their ethnic or religious affiliation may be. "A clear need for tangible and sustained Iraqi political action and success does exist today," he said. "However, there's no universal solution for Iraq, and some strategic patience will be required to give Iraqis a chance."
The country is diverse, and not one solution will work all over the country. "Progress will come in a variety of ways, in many shapes and many sizes," he said." Any all-in or all-out strategy on our part is not viable.
"We can't maintain current force size in Iraq; we all know that," he continued. "But we also I don't think can withstand a quick withdrawal of forces from Iraq. I think the consequences could be catastrophic."
The coalition goal is to move from the forefront to the periphery of planning and conducting the majority of operations in specific areas as local security conditions permit, Odierno said. This idea goes back to 2004 and entails the change from leading to partnering to overwatch. Odierno said he and his commanders will continually assess the security situation in the country and that he will make recommendations "on what forces are needed and in which areas."
If Iraqi forces are ready to do more in a certain area, then they will get the mission, he said. He noted that this was the thought process behind his recommendations to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, Multinational Force Iraq commander, which led to a reduction of forces. The transition began with a Marine expeditionary unit leaving the country in September and will continue through summer 2008 as U.S. forces transition from 20 to 15 brigade combat teams.
Any judgment on transitioning U.S. forces from Iraq will be made deliberately and only after a review of the progress on the ground, Odierno said. "It can be very tempting to overestimate progress and withdraw too many troops before an area is ready," the general said. "The irreversible momentum we need will come from gradual empowerment of the Iraqis, careful transition of security responsibilities, and a deliberate change to an overwatch role for coalition forces."
How quickly the country stabilizes depends on whether it is done violently or peacefully, he said. "The Iraqi people seem to be making that choice today," he said. "They are tired of the violence that has engulfed the country for the better part of the last four years, and they are standing up to prevent extremists from further destabilizing their proud country."