By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 10, 2008 - The Iraqi military has played a crucial and indispensible role in building the new security environment in the country, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today. Gates spoke during a joint news conference with Iraqi Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir al-Mufriji. The minister met with Gates to discuss laying the foundation for a normalized, long-term security relationship and partnership between the two nations.
Mufriji will meet with U.S. officials at the State Department here and travel to Tampa, Fla., to meet with leaders at U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command.
Gates noted that it has been one year to the day since President Bush announced the new strategy in Iraq. Five brigade combat teams moved into Iraq and implemented the "clear, hold, build" strategy. An integral part of that strategy was the role played by Iraqi army and police forces.
"Over the past year, Iraqi security forces have grown in capability, confidence and size, expanding by more than 100,000," Gates said. "Iraq has assumed security responsibility for nine of the 18 provinces in the country, and we expect this transfer to continue."
In the past year, security gains in Iraq have been notable, Gates said. The number of improvised-explosive-device attacks in the country has been cut in half, he said. Anbar province, all but written off as al Qaeda's capital, has been reclaimed for the Iraqi people.
"High-profile attacks -- car bombs and suicide attacks -- are down 60 percent since March, and civilian deaths are down 75 percent from a year ago, though still far too high," Gates said.
But even with the progress, tough days and weeks are ahead for American servicemembers, the secretary acknowledged.
"The deaths of nine U.S. servicemen announced yesterday (are) a stark reminder of the work that needs to be done and the risks that coalition and Iraqi troops take every day," he said.
The security progress gives the Iraqi government the chance to move forward on the economic, political and legislative fronts. "Many local Iraqi groups have already started to address problems locally," Gates said. "The challenge in 2008 is to link these actions with the government in Baghdad to strengthen both local and national governments."
Mufriji offered his country's sincere thanks to American servicemembers who liberated Iraq. In fighting the international war against terrorism, "the American people stood by us, the American government stood by us, and we have achieved real victory against the terrorists in 2007," he said through a translator.
The Iraqi defense minister said most of Iraq is safe and secure and he noted the great strides his country's security forces have taken. "The situation is not any different than any country in the world," he said.
"For a long time, Iraqi forces fought behind the coalition forces, then shoulder to shoulder, and now we are fighting ahead of them," he said.