Special to American Forces Press Service
Jan. 14, 2008 - After more than 12 months of hard work in Iraq's Anbar province, the Marines and sailors of Regimental Combat Team 2 are finally heading home. Their deployment began Dec. 30, 2006, and the team officially took the fight from Regimental Combat Team 7 on Jan. 20, 2007. As they head home to Camp Lejeune, N.C., later this month, members of RCT 2 will turn the mission over to Regimental Combat Team 5, from Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Marine Col. H. Stacy Clardy III, RCT 2 commander, said in a recent news conference that when the team arrived, its area of operations -- known as AO Denver -- was one of the most dangerous places in Iraq. "Now, it's not," he said. "If I were to characterize our situation here in western al Anbar, I would simply say that we, the Iraqis and Americans, are now winning. And for us, winning is peace."
Clardy has more than 6,000 Marines, sailors and soldiers under his command in an area of operation that encompasses 30,000 square miles -- about the size of South Carolina -- and is home to a half million people.
Success didn't happen overnight. Iraqi security forces improved steadily through 2007, inching closer and closer to self-sufficiency, the colonel said. Some 5,200 Iraqi police, several hundred highway patrol men, and 4,200 Iraqi army soldiers now serve in the area.
"The Army brigades have grown 200 percent in the last seven months," Clardy said. "The Iraqi police have also grown by 40 percent. This growth, and improvements in Iraqi security forces, highlights the commitment by the tribes to their own future alongside coalition forces and the Iraqi government."
The increase in Iraqi security forces is directly attributable to a fundamental change in mindset by the local sheiks and, therefore, their tribes, the colonel said.
"I can honestly say that the Iraqi leaders get it," he said. "And by 'it,' I mean they know the only way to peace and prosperity is through a legitimate government, focused on the needs of the people and driven by the rule of law. They're tired of war. They want to move into the 21st century."
RCT 2 conducted six regimental-sized operations during its tour. As a result, the area has seen an overall 75 percent reduction in enemy incidents over the past 10 months. More improvised explosive devices are being found than are detonating, Clardy said, and weapons caches found have become progressively less sophisticated.
"Right now, we see a ratio of 80 percent IED finds and 20 percent IED attacks," he explained. "Most of the caches we're finding now are old and crusty. The enemy's IEDs have gone from what we would consider military-grade ordnance down to homemade explosives."
In the province formerly known as the "Wild West," the "Anbar awakening" has become a model for the rest of Iraq. The question is: Can it be replicated?
"The one thing about Iraq is that every area is different," Clardy said. "It'd be very difficult to apply a cookie-cutter approach, particularly in this type of warfare. But can we learn from others? Absolutely. By studying what's going on in other parts of Iraq, these techniques could be applied."
Though progress has been made on RCT 2's watch, Clardy said, the American public must guard against claiming victory just yet.
"Make no mistake about it, we are still at war," Clardy said. "Al Qaeda still exists in AO Denver, if only through their minions. These extremists are committed to their illegitimate extremist views and undermining the path to peace. They are still driven to harm Americans and Iraqis alike."
(Marine Cpl. Adam Johnston serves as a combat correspondent with Regimental Combat Team 2.)