By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 6, 2007 - Reported murders in a region adjacent to Baghdad on the city's eastern boundary have dropped to levels not seen in two years, a senior commander in the region said today. Barring any extreme spike in murders this month, Army Col. Wayne W. Grigsby Jr., commander of 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, said he expects the year to finish out with as many as 400 fewer reported murders in the area than reported in 2005.
Grigsby said on a conference call that he has been working with two Iraqi police brigades that man six stations across an area about the size of Washington, D.C., metro area. He said reports show there has been "a distinct, downward trend" in both murders and kidnappings.
In May, 35 murders were reported, he said. But eight murders have been reported in each of the past two months.
Grigsby's 3,500 troops deployed to the area -- along the eastern boundary of Baghdad south, along the Diyala and Tigris rivers -- in March with orders to block the flow of weapons and supplies by insurgents into Baghdad.
Area residents are about two-thirds Shiite and one-third Sunni. About 1.2 million people live in its major cities.
Before Grigsby's brigade arrived, only two companies' worth of soldiers operated in the region. While they did what they could, the area was too large for their numbers to cover, and insurgent activity was prominent, he said.
Now, Grigsby said, his troops have been able to partner with 900 Iraqi police and nearly 4,000 "concerned citizens" in Neighborhood Watch-type groups to reclaim the region. About 300 concerned citizens are waiting for school slots to transition into the Iraqi police. Grigsby said the Iraqi police forces should grow to about 1,500 at the start of 2008.
Since operations began, Grigsby's soldiers have killed 125 insurgents, detained 500 suspects, found 106 improvised explosive devices, and recovered 42 weapons caches. They have cleared nearly 3,000 buildings and searched 11,000 vehicles, he said.
Also, local commanders have spent $24 million in the past nine months on emergency reconstruction. The program allows commanders on the ground to complete small projects that have a big impact on the community. More than half of those funds have gone to water purification and distribution, Grigsby said.
"We are beginning to see some signs of normalcy returning to the way of life here in our battle space," Grigsby said. "We are still in a tough fight. There are people outside our patrol bases that want to kill us. But things are getting better."
The commander said momentum in his area has "set the conditions for political accommodation, economic development and essential services to progress."
But, he warned, the momentum is not irreversible. It must be maintained by the successful transition of security in the area to an Iraqi force that is large enough, trained and equipped.
Local citizens have helped supplement the absence of Iraqi army troops there, and "ultimate success depends on local leaders," he said. The local concerned citizens "thicken" the line of security.
But, Grigsby said, he needs more Iraqi army troops in the area. This will allow him to reach out to pockets of the region that still have insurgent activity, especially in southern parts of the region.