By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service
Nov. 14, 2007 - Coalition officials are taking advantage of a decline in insurgent violence to jumpstart a transition into long-term stability operations, a U.S. commander said in Baghdad. With the effects of the U.S. troop surge bearing positive fruit in the form of reduced attack numbers, reduced casualties, and an increase in weapons cache finds, U.S. forces can pay more attention to capacity building in Iraq's towns and provinces, Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of Multinational Division Center, told reporters in the International Zone on Oct. 11.
"(Iraqi) civilian casualties since the 1st of July are down by 42 percent, coalition casualties are down by 68 percent, and the Iraqi security force casualties are down by 37 percent," Lynch said.
In the same period, Lynch said, there was a 43 percent decrease in overall attacks in his area, which includes Najaf, Karbala, Babil, Wasit and parts of Baghdad province. That number includes a 59 percent decrease in improvised-explosive-device attacks, he said.
"Why do you think you've had that significant change since the 1st of July?" the general asked.
"The first reason is the surge. The surge gave us the combat power we needed to reach out and touch the enemy," he explained.
"The second thing is the fact that we don't commute to work any more," he said, referring to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy of embedding troops into communities they patrol. Petraeus is the top coalition commander in Iraq.
"What we do is we conduct operations where the enemy owns the terrain, and the end state of that operation is establishing a patrol base," Lynch said.
From these bases, U.S. troops can provide a "sustained security presence," he explained.
The tipping point, however, and what is enabling coalition forces to press ahead with civil affairs projects, is the participation of the Iraqi people in providing security for their own communities, Lynch said.
"It's the locals who've said, 'I've had enough,'" he said. "They know who lives in that village. They know who's the good guy; they know who's the bad guy."
With 26,000 Iraqi concerned citizens and security volunteers involved in guarding key infrastructure in his area, Lynch said that by January 2008 coalition forces could shift their core focus to capacity building.
"We're going to work that hard after the first of the year on the areas of governance, economic development and Iraqi security forces," he explained.
Army Brig. Gen. Ed Cardon, deputy commander for support of Multinational Division Center, described the effort.
"Capacity building is really defined in terms of governance, and that's the ability of the government to provide services to the people, to include employment, and then the development of the economy," he explained.
A cornerstone of the capacity-building program so far has been assessment of communities and the distribution of "micro-grants," Cardon said.
U.S. troops, State Department employees, and representatives of the U.S. Agency for International Development -- the key players in provincial reconstruction teams -- look at Iraqi towns to determine where the right combination of stability and potential exists for U.S. investment. In many cases, Cardon said, it is a matter of restoring these local economies to the level they were at before the war by restoring centers of industry, as well as the small businesses that surround them.
In the case of small businesses, turnaround can be quick, Cardon said, with micro-grants distributed "often in the terms of just hundreds of dollars, not thousands of dollars."
Lynch pointed to the town of Hawr Rajab as an example of the security-to-prosperity transition strategy at work. The military is holding up the town as a "model community" for Iraqis to study.
"There was a major exodus of the people who lived in Hawr Rajab based on al Qaeda attacks. Eighty percent of those people left," Lynch said. "Now they're back. And what they came back to is shops that were destroyed by al Qaeda.
"We're going to help them rebuild those shops by using micro-grants," Lynch explained. "So when you walk the streets of Hawr Rajab, you see shops that were closed or destroyed, and when you go back with us in a few months, you'll see shops that are open and viable, just like you have in Jurf as Sakhr now."
Jurf as Sakhr is the second model community the military is highlighting as an example of what Iraqis can have if they cooperate with coalition forces. "You walk down the street and everything in that village above 8 feet high is flying an Iraqi flag," Lynch said. "There's an Iraqi identity out there. And as a result of that, they're all trying to do the right thing."
For these Iraqi activists, the willingness to participate extends beyond securing infrastructure to include actively rebuilding their communities, Lynch said. "Not every concerned local citizen aspires to be a policeman or aspires to be a member of the Iraqi army. Some of them want to go back to their own trades," he said.
The Iraqis say, "I'm OK with manning this checkpoint today, but I'm an engineer, I'm a plumber, I'm a contractor, I repair roofs. I want to do that," Lynch said.
To harness those skills, he said, "what we're working toward is generation of some kind of public works organization that would employ these folks to do things for their villages to improve the quality of life."
The other half of the capacity-building effort, Lynch explained, is supporting governance at the lowest level. From a base of order in the towns and villages, it is possible to link up the chain, back to the provincial and national Iraqi governments, to forge a working relationship from top to bottom, he said.
Lynch highlighted the town of Arab Jabour as a location of concentrated U.S. efforts to develop these relationships. "In this place where they haven't had governance for years, they've elected amongst themselves a city council that works directly with the 'qada' council and the provincial council," Lynch said.
"We become helicopter ambassadors," he said of military commanders, shuttling back and forth among Iraqi officials, making introductions and highlighting areas of mutual interest.
But whatever progress is being seen on the government and economic fronts is made possible by a base of security, Lynch said. In the transition to a capacity-building focus, aggressive security operations will continue, he said.
"I'm asked the question, 'Well, did you defeat the insurgency?' Of course not, he's still out there. He's still out there amongst us," Lynch stated.
"We're going to continue to do aggressive, offensive operations. That's what's shaping this battlefield," he added.
"What al Qaeda has lost as a result of our operations is the support of the local population," he said.
(Tim Kilbride works for Task Force Marne Public Affairs.)