By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 10, 2008 - President Bush's new strategy for Iraq, announced one year ago today during a televised speech to the nation, is accomplishing many of its goals and laying important groundwork for initiatives yet to be fulfilled, military and defense officials agree. Bush unveiled the strategy amid growing sectarian violence that he acknowledged had overwhelmed Iraqis' political gains and created an "unacceptable" situation in Iraq. The plan called for more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops on the ground in Baghdad and Anbar province, increased responsibility for the Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces, and more diplomatic and economic initiatives.
A year later, officials cite solid evidence that the strategy has achieved what Bush called the most urgent priority in Iraq: to stop the violence and create the stability needed for the country's new government to succeed.
Last month, during his sixth visit to Baghdad since taking office, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates noted vast security improvements under the strategy. He cited "recent months of dramatic change in the security situation across the nation, a decline in violence to levels not seen since the Samarra mosque bombing nearly two years ago" during a joint news conference with Iraqi Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir al-Mufriji on Dec. 5.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, reported in his end-of-year letter to troops in Iraq that attacks per week are down about 60 percent from June 2007 and are now at a level last seen consistently in the early summer of 2005.
Petraeus also noted that civilian deaths are down approximately 75 percent from a year ago, dropping to a level not seen since the beginning of 2006. In addition, coalition forces found and cleared more than 6,658 weapons caches in 2007, well over twice the amount cleared in 2006.
Bush cautioned when he announced the strategy that it wouldn't bring an immediate end to violence in Iraq. "Our enemies in Iraq will make every effort to ensure that our television screens are filled with images of death and suffering," he said. "Yet, over time, we can expect to see Iraqi troops chasing down murderers, fewer brazen acts of terror, and growing trust and cooperation from Baghdad's residents."
Petraeus told the Pentagon Channel this week that the new strategy in Iraq -- with more coalition and Iraqi troops helping quell violence in and around Baghdad and operations that promote closer cooperation with the Iraqi population -- has helped stabilize once-violent areas.
Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, said during a Jan. 8 conference call with military analysts that by living, eating and patrolling with Iraqi forces throughout the country, U.S. troops are getting known by the Iraqi people they are working to protect. "When I go out on a patrol, the Iraqis will start asking about folks who aren't with us," Odierno said. "They'll ask 'Where's Sergeant Z today?' And they actually ask why that person isn't out. So the relationships are building."
This presence helped gain the trust and confidence of the Iraqi people, and ultimately, their support as well, Petraeus told the Pentagon Channel. They began "turning in the bad guys in their midst, ... pointing out the weapons caches or identifying improvised explosive devices, and ultimately volunteering to help with security as neighborhood watches, concerned local citizens and so forth," he said.
Bush emphasized a year ago that a successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations. "Ordinary Iraqi citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities," he said.
This week, the president hailed provincial reconstruction teams operating in Iraq as vital partners in the strategy that has improved security and helped create conditions for the Iraqi government to succeed. Speaking in the White House Rose Garden after a Jan. 8 meeting with PRT members and their brigade commanders, Bush praised the members for progress they've helped make possible during the past year and emphasized the important work they're doing in communities throughout Iraq.
Bush called the PRTs an important part of the strategy that ensures terrorists don't succeed in Iraq and that the Iraqi people are able to live in peace. He praised PRT members who "are helping improve the lives of citizens they never met before" as they serve on the front lines in the war on terror.
"In so doing, they're making this country more secure, and they're helping lay down a foundation for peace," he said.
A year ago, Bush said introducing the new strategy and bumping up the U.S. troop presence would help the Iraqis succeed so U.S. troops can begin drawing down. "If we increase our support at this crucial moment and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home," he said.
Petraeus noted this week that the drawdown already is beginning. With one brigade combat team and a Marine expeditionary unit already gone without being replaced, and four more BCTs and two Marine battalions to leave by late July, he said he believes there's "a solid plan" to maintain the momentum they helped to build.
Petraeus said he's buoyed by successes made and momentum built, but recognizes the job is far from over. "There will be more tough moments ... and bad days" as the coalition and Iraqis continue to pursue extremists and prevent them from establishing new safe havens," he said. "There are some tough enemies out there, and innumerable obstacles and challenges.
"So it will not be easy," he added. "But we believe that we can indeed continue to build on what we have accomplished so far."
Bush emphasized last year the importance of the mission in Iraq to security in the region and in the United States. He said the struggle there "will determine the direction of the global war on terror and our safety here at home."
Petraeus said this week he's hopeful others will be able "to see that there is progress, to see that there is hope, and decide to continue to support what is really a very, very important endeavor for the United States, ... for all the countries of the coalition, ... and of course, (for) Iraq and the region."