By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Nov. 26, 2007 - The first reduction in American forces in Iraq is under way, as the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division heads back to Fort Hood, Texas. The brigade will not be replaced. Roughly 162,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq in 20 brigade teams or their Marine equivalents. If all goes well, this will drop to 15 brigade combat teams over the next eight months, Navy Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, a spokesman for Multinational Force Iraq in Baghdad, said Nov. 24.
Iraqi security forces are attaining the expertise and operational capabilities needed to police their own country, Smith said. Iraqi forces are taking over more of the battle space in Baghdad and around the country.
"Current conditions allow for a withdrawal of the first unit ... starting on Nov. 27," Smith said. "If conditions continue to permit, a total of five brigade combat teams will be redeployed over the next eight months."
The redeployment of the brigade shows the coalition's confidence in Iraqi security forces and reflects the overall improved security in the country, Smith said. The brigade – based in Diyala province – will not leave a vacuum in the province.
"We do not intend to give back our hard-fought ground," Smith said. "Repositioning of coalition and Iraqi security forces will ensure that overall force levels and combat capability levels in Diyala will be tailored to meet emerging threats."
Soldiers of the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 2nd Infantry Division are replacing the 3rd Brigade forces, said Army Col. David W. Sutherland, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team. The Stryker Brigade has been conducting combat operations in other areas of Iraq for the past six months and is absorbing Diyala into its battle space.
"Over the past 14 months, my soldiers and the Iraqi security forces, the provincial government and other officials have worked hard to bring stability and services to Diyala," Sutherland said. "And it's truly gratifying to see the efforts of my soldiers come to fruition."
The province, while still troubled, has come a long way, he said. The security problem dominated; government, economy and basic services hinged on improved security, he explained.
"Public perception of inequity, corruption, and fear became the driving force behind support to terrorists, specifically al Qaeda," the colonel said.
In May, prior to Operation Arrowhead Ripper and the surge of troops in Diyala, there were 1,051 significant acts of violence, Sutherland said. This included murders, kidnappings and suicide attacks. "Today, the operational environment is drastically improving," he said. "By the end of October, there were 464 significant acts of violence reported. This is a drop of over 50 percent of significant acts in a province the size of Maryland, with over 1.6 million citizens." And the trend continues. Through Nov. 20, there were just over 200 acts of violence this month.
"These improvements would not have been possible without the support and cooperation from the local citizens who were tired of the hatred and disgust offered by extremist organizations," he said. "The surge enabled the coalition and Iraqi security forces to dominate the terrain and secure the population. It also helped the government to function properly and begin focusing on reconstruction and essential services."
But in the end, it was the people of the province who enabled the surge to succeed. Roughly 3,000 concerned local citizens have stood up against al Qaeda, Sutherland said. "They assist the Iraqi police by guarding their own roads and local infrastructure and manning checkpoints throughout the province," he explained.
These concerned local citizens also provide coalition and the Iraqi security forces with information about weapons caches, locations of car bombs and house-borne and deep-buried improvised explosive devices, and are turning in known al Qaeda fighters. "These concerned local citizens understand that the future of Iraq can be better if they get involved in ridding the province of al Qaeda and participate in the development of their own democracy," he said.
"As I've said on numerous occasions, we cannot kill our way out of this," Sutherland said. "In Diyala, when the government loses its will, the people lose hope and they turn to other sources to provide that hope. Today, there is hope in Diyala."