By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 7, 2008 - Violence has dropped in southern Iraq, but Iranian-influenced "special groups" remain a concern, the commander of the U.S. brigade that provides theater security said today. Army Col. Charles Flynn spoke to Pentagon reporters via teleconference from his headquarters at Coalition Operating Base Adder at Talil Air Base near Nasiriyah, Iraq. The 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division has had the mission since July.
The brigade ensures that the ground lines of communication and supply lines to multinational forces remain open.
"We're not landowners per se, but our area of operations spans across every multinational division's battle space," Flynn said. "We range as far as south as the Kuwaiti border, extend as far north as the Balad Airfield and operate west all the way out to the Iraq-Jordanian border. And we essentially fight along the main and alternate supply routes throughout Iraq."
Flynn said that overall, security in southern Iraq is stable and improving. Jaysh al-Mahdi, a militia formed by Shiia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has lost significant public support in the region, the colonel said. "As a result, we expect Muqtada al-Sadr to take a more active role in the political arena," he said.
Still, the 'special groups' – Shia groups that are trained, financed and take orders from Iranian extremists -- remain a concern. "We believe they'll continue to be influenced by those who seek to disrupt the government of Iraq and coalition forces," Flynn said.
Since July, the colonel told reporters, attacks on coalition and Iraqi bases have steadily declined. "I attribute this decline to Muqtada al-Sadr's standdown and the resulting fractures within Jaysh al-Mahdi," Flynn said. Increased patrols, improved intelligence, the use of joint security stations and better outreach also have helped, he said.
The brigade is working with Iraqi allies to reduce improvised explosive device attacks – especially those that use armor-piercing explosive projectiles. U.S. soldiers are working to build combat outposts along the supply routes, and are working to develop strong partnerships with Iraqi army and police units in the region.
The command also reached out to Iraqi civilians to organize road crews known as Community Transportation Improvement Teams throughout southern Iraq. The crews clean and maintain highways, Flynn said. "We have multiple contracts covering nearly 800 kilometers of highway," he said. "These crews remove debris, fill in holes, and their mere presence has reduced the ability of EFP and IED cells to operate."
The program has engaged local sheikhs and encouraged the population to participate in security, he said.
The colonel said the brigade's second line of operations is developing partnerships. U.S., Australian and Romanian troops, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the 10th Iraqi Army Division and the Iraqi police and highway forces have all worked together, he said.
With help from the provincial reconstruction teams of Dhi Qar, Muthanna and the Maysan province, "We've made huge gains with the provincial government leaders in delivering essential services," the colonel said.
The unit also is working with local authorities to protect the Great Ziggurat of Ur, near the base at Adder. The ziggurat – a pyramid-shaped tower -- is at least 4,000 years old and has been off-limits since Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled.
"We're working closely with the Ministry of Antiquities, our coalition partners and the PRT to preserve this site, along with refurbishing a visitor and conference center," Flynn said. "The goal is to return this rich and traditional historical site back to the Iraqi people and instill a sense of pride and achievement in the local population."
Partnerships with police and army units, though, remain the main focus for the brigade.
"Since arriving, our partnership has matured and we now conduct joint patrols and joint checkpoints," Flynn said. "This work is enabled by establishing those joint security stations to build trust and share information and intelligence. These are powerful positions as they afford U.S. and Iraqi forces to partner in defeating any extremist threats that may emerge."