By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Nov. 26, 2007 - Though the surge has worked, that doesn't mean that extremists – especially Shiia special squads – have been overcome, the commander of the first surge brigade into Iraq said today. Army Col. B. Don Farris, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division, said that when the soldiers first arrived in Baghdad in January, sectarian violence was at an unprecedented level.
"Whole-scale murder and displacement of families from both sects was alarming," Farris said during a briefing with Pentagon reporters from Baghdad. "Al Qaeda remained organized, determined and extremely lethal, and Shiia militia death squads operated with impunity, committing horrific acts of violence against Iraqi citizens."
Conditions in his area northeast of Baghdad have dramatically improved. He said that attacks in his region have dropped by 75 percent since May 1.
"Also important to note is the increased willingness of Iraqi citizens to provide information about terrorist and criminal activity," he said. "In recent months, the number of tips has jumped approximately 300 percent."
The area the brigade handles has a range of ethnic diversities. Adhamiyah is overwhelmingly Sunni, and al Qaeda used the area as its beachhead in Baghdad. Sadr City is overwhelmingly Shiia, and special squads supported by Iran are the main threat to progress. Between these two extremes are a number of neighborhoods with various percentages of these two sects.
"In Adhamiya, the Iraqi security forces continue to take the lead in protecting their citizens," Farris said. "We have observed incredible momentum from the concerned local citizens' groups, as well as increased trust and commitment to work cooperatively with the Iraqi security forces."
Progress is so far along that U.S. personnel in Adhamiya can focus on partnering with the Iraqi police, Farris said.
In Sadr City, the coalition currently operates in about 20 percent of the land space – mostly in the commercial district. "We've maintained a very careful balance," Farris said. "We have decided not to introduce a large number of coalition forces into the heart of Sadr City, because we don't want to create a flash point. It's going to take time before we resolve some of the concerns that occurred in 2004, and we hope for increased dialogue with the civic leaders and the citizens inside Sadr City before we try to do more."
The extremist special groups operate out of Sadr City, he said. Coalition officials assess the groups are receiving funding and training from Iran. "They're employing Iranian munitions and they operate from within the heart of Sadr City," Farris said.
Shiia Arabs seem to be holding to a ceasefire called by cleric leader Muqtada al Sadr. The Shiia imam formed the Jaysh al Mahdi – the Mahdi Army – to rise against the coalition. Many Shiia joined the group, and the vast majority of them are not extremists.
"We have communicated to many of the citizens in our sector the Jaysh al Mahdi is not the enemy, that we're only concerned about those who continue this cycle of violence," Farris said. "We have many reports, and through our contacts, many mainstream Sadrists communicate to us that they agree with this ceasefire, that it is holding, and we applaud that."
While violence is down, much remains to be done, the colonel said. "Every day in our sector we continue to see signs of reconciliation among the various groups at the grass-root level," Farris said. "The mixed neighborhoods in our sector are working together to help defeat what remains of the terrorist networks, and they're increasingly asserting their influence with the government of Iraq to improve essential services."
Still, reconciliation will take time. "I've learned that personal relationships are very important in Iraqi culture, and small overtures can carry great weight when you're attempting to build trust and confidence between rival groups," he said. "But we are seeing the signs of growing momentum."