Special to American Forces Press Service
Dec. 27, 2007 - When the senior leadership and soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st "Ironhorse" Brigade Combat Team arrived in Iraq nearly 15 months ago, the security situation here was quite different from the one they now experience as they patrol the streets throughout their area of operations. According to Maj. Patrick Michaelis, the Ironhorse brigade's operations officer, the brigade has seen a "phenomenal change" from having 150 enemy attacks per week for the first seven to 10 weeks in theater to having only about 10 significant events per week, now mostly involving the finding of weapons caches and improvised explosive devices, with only isolated incidents of coordinated enemy attacks.
"The shift in atmosphere of our operational environment has moved away from individual security and safety to normalcy, which has manifested itself in a concern for governance," Michaelis said. "Spectacular attacks are now the exception and not the rule.
"If you had asked last year if we were fighting a counterinsurgency, it would have been hard to say yes; rather, we were in the center of a low-level ethnocentric civil war," he added.
Michaelis credits much of the brigade's success as a combined result of the troop surge, which began in early 2007, reconciliation efforts, and other underlying factors.
Early on in the deployment, the brigade began establishing joint security stations and coalition outposts in the neighborhoods in which it patrols.
"One of the tactics we implemented as a manifestation of the surge was putting ourselves dead center in contentious areas, going where the extremists' sanctuaries were, along with targeting al Qaeda financial assets," Michaelis said. "These efforts forced a change in the differences between this year and last year."
"Al Qaeda's tactics of extorting the locals, which led to the 'Awakening' in (Anbar province) gave rise to the opportunity of formerly irreconcilable forces aligning with the government and coalition to work toward the definable future that we're in now."
Sunnis and Shiias first began coming together in late January and early February in the brigade's operating environment of the 2nd "Lancer" Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, in Abu Ghraib. Tribal sheiks joined local leaders, with more concrete results of reconciliation efforts manifesting themselves in April and May, Michaelis explained. Eventually, similar things began happening in areas patrolled by the 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment; the 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment, which was attached to the Ironhorse Brigade out of Fort Lewis, Wash.; and the 2nd "Stallion" Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment also began to see changes, as former al Qaeda in Iraq members began breaking away from the extremist organizations and aligning themselves with the government.
"There was a definite polarization between Sunni and Shiia tribes, and now they are finding themselves recognizing their differences, yet working toward a common goal."
Despite a significant drop in enemy activity over the past six months, the brigade, which operates in Taji and Abu Ghraib and a small part of Anbar province, still remains vigilant in its efforts to maintain security gains while working with its joint partners, Michaelis said.
"Although the tension in the air is gone and a there's a feeling of opportunity and optimism, there's no doubt that the bad guys are still out there," the operations officer said. "We're prepared to respond to them with lethal force if necessary."
During its rotation, the brigade -- working alongside its Iraqi counterparts in the Iraqi police, Iraqi security volunteers and soldiers serving in the 3rd Brigade, 6th Iraqi Army Division, and the 2nd and 3rd Brigades of the 9th Iraqi Army Division (Mechanized) -- has detained 86 high-ranking senior leaders in various extremist organizations, including al Qaeda.
The brigade found and disposed of 724 improvised explosive devices, many of which 1st Brigade Special Troops Battalion troops found while clearing routes. The brigade also uncovered 180 weapons caches. All of this was done while teaming in joint operations that not only involved partnering with Iraqi military, police and volunteer forces but also included the participation of Estonian and Macedonian troops, also based on Camp Taji and embedded with 1st BCT soldiers.
Over the course of the deployment, the brigade's 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, fired more than 6,400 rounds from its M109A6 Paladin howitzers in support of counterfire missions to suppressive fire missions as well as hitting planned targets. The soldiers also cleared routes for combat missions along with providing security for the base camp here.
Nearly 12,000 combined Critical Infrastructure Security volunteers and Iraqi security volunteers have partnered with Iraqi security forces and the BCT. They man the 190 checkpoints throughout the Ironhorse area of operations.
The brigade assisted military transition teams based on Camp Taji by partnering with various Iraqi army units to train them. In one such partnership, the brigade's Charlie Medical Company, 115th Brigade Support Battalion, trained more than 400 Iraqi soldiers through its combat lifesaver course.
Thousands of recruits in the villages of Abu Ghraib and Taji were vetted by the Iraqi government and local police departments to become potential police officers through recruiting drives. Soldiers in the brigade's 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment; 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment; and the 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, all aided in these efforts.
To date, the combined efforts to build police forces in villages in the Ironhorse area of operations have resulted in more than 1,500 Iraqi police graduating from the Iraqi Police Academy in Baghdad and at the police training facility on Forward Operating Base India. The brigade's soldiers also assisted police and government leaders with the standing up of police stations such as the one in Agar Quf, which opened this month.
"As security continues to improve and displaced Iraqi citizens return to their hometowns, there is a need to develop a more sophisticated approach to law enforcement, because criminal elements may also be returning into the area," Michaelis said. "There has to be an investment in the Iraqi police beyond what is currently required and allocated against the police force."
Within towns such as Sab Al Bor, which had a population of 2,600 upon the brigade's arrival in theater, displaced persons are returning to their homes at a rate of 25 to 30 families per day, and the population has increased over the past four months to nearly 25,000 people.
In the villages, the brigade also has seen the economy improving in the form of many newly opened businesses. In Taji Market prior to the brigade's arrival in the area, there were 125 shops, but now has the village has 340. Abu Ghraib's 370 shops have increased to 900, while the city of Fira Shia, which had no shops, now has 20. Most of the other villages in Ironhorse areas have seen similar progress.
New economic opportunities are being seen in the Ironhorse operating environment in the forms of employment. Concerned local citizens, who are being paid for providing security under a temporary coalition program, eventually will be employed by the Iraqi government. In another employment initiative, the brigade has worked to assist the Iraqi government in creating programs very similar to Job Corps, established in the 1930s in the United States, to provide temporary employment for Iraqi citizens through various civil improvement projects such as trash collection, road work and construction projects.
"When the people have hope in the form of jobs to feed their families and education for their children, this goes much farther toward solidifying security gains than a gun on every street," Michaelis said. "The people are now worried about electricity and water (along with other essential services), which are all things we as Americans feel is an obligation by government to provide.
"These are things the Iraqi government is working slowly towards," Michaelis added. "The final step towards building a safe, stable and secure environment is a government that takes care of its people."
To assist local governments, the brigade's embedded provincial reconstruction team, known as EPRT Baghdad 5, has been providing local governance mentorship courses to give the local government officials a better understanding of local government concepts. Along with these efforts, the EPRT has provided advice as local governments began establishing executive and technical branches of government and committees to allow them to become self-sustaining.
"The EPRT has become critical to sustaining reconciliation gains," Michaelis said. "Their assistance has been vital in helping the local governments with learning how to provide essential services for their citizens."
In all, the Ironhorse Brigade, using assets in the EPRT and Company A, 492nd Civil Affairs Battalion, has assisted the Iraqi people in completing 179 reconstruction projects in the two neighborhoods in which it operates. These efforts have led to the refurbishment of 11 schools, seven roads being repaved, eight clinics reopening, 31 electricity projects and 23 education projects, among many other efforts.
When the brigade first arrived, local citizens were receiving about four hours of power per day. Now residents in the area of operations have an average of 12 to 18 hours of electricity per day. Other improvements led to the repair of the Taji pump station, which was inoperable for more than four years, and repairs to canals that are providing farmers with irrigation water for the first time in four years.
As the brigade's soldiers prepare themselves for their departure in early 2008, much of their focus will be on getting their replacements in the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, up to speed on the operating environment and lessons the Ironhorse troopers have learned over their time in Iraq.
"During our relief in place with the next unit, we must emphasize the interconnected nature of the environment," Michaelis stressed. "As far as security, presence is important; however, just as important is a clear understanding of how government works from tribes to businesses and the knowledge that there are still remaining cases of sectarianism interests.
"We must pass this knowledge onto them so that they are successful and so they have an understanding of the different layers of social networks which affect aspects of government, business, religion and tribal relationships here," he added. "We believe the relief-in-place (transition) is important for us to carry our momentum forward."
The main goal for the brigade throughout its deployment involved working together, professionally with the Iraqi people with the goal of building a safe, stable and secure environment for all Iraqis, Michaelis said.
Although there is still much work to be done to fully transition the sovereignty of Iraq to the Iraqi people, the Ironhorse troops feel they have made a difference and remain hopeful for the future of Iraq, he added.
"We're all cautious in our optimism and we see the fruits of our burden every day in Iraq," Michaelis said. "We've sacrificed greatly to achieve a level of normalcy and stability to allow Iraqis to step forward. It can be measured in the lives of 53 soldiers, the countless numbers of injured, and it can be measured in the sacrifices of the other 4,000 Ironhorse troops who currently serve in the brigade."
(Army Staff Sgt. Jon Cupp serves with 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, Public Affairs.)