By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 3, 2007 - Less than six months after arriving in Baghdad for its third tour of duty, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division has "lifted the blanket of fear" that al Qaeda imposed on the Sunni communities under its protection, the brigade's commander said today. Army Col. Terry Ferrell spoke with Pentagon reporters in a teleconference from Iraq.
He said the brigade was the last of the surge brigades to arrive in the Baghdad area in June, and it's responsible for the southwestern Tigris River Valley, covering the towns of Abu Waitha, Arab Jabour, Hawr Rajab, Adwaniyah and Madhariyah.
In 2003, the brigade was the main force in the Thunder Run into central Baghdad. In 2005, the brigade policed eastern Baghdad and helped monitor the Iraqi elections.
The area was a Sunni Baathist stronghold that became an al Qaeda sanctuary, Ferrell said. "From this area, extremists trained, planned and conducted operations," he said. Arab Jabour was a particular safe haven for weapons caches and bomb-making factories.
Al Qaeda found it easy to intimidate the people and foster a climate of fear, the colonel said.
"When we deployed into the area, ... we knew we would face a difficult fight to reclaim the ground, but quickly discovered a local population that was willing to pitch in and help with the fight," he said. "It came down to what people were willing to live with. The majority of the Sunni citizens decided they'd had enough. They realized that it didn't matter what they had to do; they wanted to take back their neighborhoods, regardless if they were Sunni, regardless what tribe, and in many cases, if they were from the same family."
Coalition and Iraqi forces provided the security needed for the local citizens to step up and provide intelligence, and to start securing key infrastructure.
"We have crippled al Qaeda in our area and contributed to a dramatic turnaround for the security in Baghdad," he said. "We continue to uncover and destroy weapons caches every day, depleting what is al Qaeda's ultimately finite arsenal.
"Locally, we've lifted the blanket of fear on these communities, folded them into our security apparatus and gotten to a point now where we can slowly begin turning our focus to reconstruction and capacity building," he added.
But the fight in the area still is tough. Al Qaeda is pushing back against the concerned citizens programs the brigade has established.
"Al Qaeda wants to strike while they're still weak, and over the past months, insurgents have hit concerned local citizens' checkpoints in two areas in our operational environment, in both Hawr Rajab and Ad Diwaniyah," Ferrell said. "In both areas, the concerned local citizens suffered from losses, but they stood firm. And in conjunction with the Iraqi security forces and the coalition forces, they were able to defeat the insurgents' attack and continue to stand in their positions and maintain the security in their towns, and we continue to go forward in the towns today."
Coalition troops, Iraqi security forces and the concerned local citizens groups have combined to effect a dramatic drop in attack and violence. "Schools are back in session. Stores are opening. Markets are starting to pick up. What you see is local citizens are taking back their towns," the colonel said.
The brigade is using the Commanders Emergency Relief Program and microgrants to bolster and expand business progress.
Ferrell said that progress still is perishable in the area. "The insurgents wait like vultures, ready to take advantage of any sign of weakness," he said. "We continue to push hard to capitalize on the security gains that we currently have. And we understand that we will continue joint operations and continually clear the enemy throughout our region."