By Jamie Findlater
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 19, 2007 - Extremists are intimidating Iraqi citizens less and less, thanks to security improvements in the country, a unit commander there said yesterday. Army Col. Tom James, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team, is less than three weeks into his third tour in Iraq and said he sees marked improvements. "It's different here," he said in a conference call with online journalists and "bloggers."
"This is a population no longer being intimidated by the extremists," he said. "They are tired of being terrorized, and they are standing up and saying, 'That's it.' They want to provide information and secure their families."
James' unit is conducting Operation Marne Roundup, working to defeat al Qaeda extremists in the Euphrates River Valley, in northwestern Babel province. He said some 30 extremists have been terrorizing the population in the area but now have been forced out of their sanctuaries. "We are taking that area away now, and they are desperate," James explained.
James' team arrived in the region Dec. 1, and it already has uncovered 25 improvised explosive devices, 10 caches, and eight extremist fighting positions, and has stationed 80 to 100 "concerned local citizens" in Neighborhood Watch-type organizations to hold the area while the Iraqi army is put in place. Efforts now are aimed at securing a patrol base in Khidr.
James said he relies heavily on these concerned local citizens. Twenty to 30 percent of the concerned-citizen volunteers become Iraqi police if they can pass reading, writing, and other tests. In fact, 140 such former volunteers are graduating from an Iraqi police training course at the end of the month, he said.
The colonel noted specific improvements since his last tour. "Iraqi security forces have grown, with the Iraqi army and police in Babel conducting intelligence-based operations that have improved significantly."
In addition, James noted continued progress toward non-sectarianism. "Shiia policemen are going after Shiia extremists and are not influenced by governmental or party organizations."
He also described his unit's specific mission in its area of operations. "Our mission is to secure the population, block accelerants, and defeat sectarian violence, allowing the security situation to grow and the population to grow more secure."
A big part of establishing this security, James explained, is instilling continued confidence in the local population. "Our operational concept is to attack and clear areas where extremists have been and establish a combined control base -- coalition force, Iraqi army and Iraqi police -- to show the population that not only have we cleared your area, but we are here to stay, and we are here to help protect you."
As a result, James noted, local citizens are noticing this commitment and are eager to cooperate. When citizens are comfortable and secure, "actionable intelligence starts to flow," he said. "This results in economics and government that grows from the lowest level, which we call building local capacity."
(Jamie Findlater works for the New Media branch of American Forces Information Service.)