By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
March 20, 2008 - New units moving into Iraq have the challenge of continuing the security improvements while helping the Iraqis build economic and political structures, the commander of a U.S. division preparing to take on that task said today. Army Maj. Gen. Michael L. Oates, commands the 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum, N.Y., and in May, the division headquarters will relieve the 3rd Infantry Division at Multinational Division Center in Iraq.
"We want to build on the security environment that (Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, 3rd Infantry Division commander) and his guys have created," Oates said during a roundtable discussion with Pentagon reporters.
"The question is, 'How can we continue to advance the ball?'" Oates said. "The areas that we need to work on are additional employment, additional economic development and in the capacity of the local governments."
Security is the key to all of those goals, and coalition officials in Iraq have contended that if security were sufficient, the Iraqi government could make some real progress in the other areas.
Multinational Division Center's battle space covers the southern Baghdad belts, the supply lines to Kuwait, and Wasit province out to the Iranian border. The 10th Mountain Division will take over a smaller force. Instead of four maneuver brigades, the 10th will command three.
The area to which the division is deploying was a battleground for al Qaeda in Iraq and Iranian-supported "special groups." Oates served there in 2005 and 2006 with the 101st Airborne Division. A brigade of the 101st that was assigned there then lost 52 soldiers, he said.
"I went back again in 2007 to visit a brigade from the 10th Mountain in the area," the general said. "It had been a very violent place; we had lost 52 soldiers, and two were missing." But he found that in 2007, there was a precipitous change, as the violence had just dropped off.
He recalled driving safely along a main supply route where his unit had constantly struck improvised explosive devices. "We met with people wearing these road guard vests, and met sheikhs I had known the previous year," he said. "We had arrested or killed their family members, and they had certainly killed some of our soldiers, and there we were meeting and talking about the new accommodation."
He said a number of factors have contributed to the drop in violence. The first is that Shiia cleric Muqtaqda al-Sadr told his militia to refrain from violence. "We know that has had an impact," Oates said.
Oates said he believes it's fair to say that paying former Sunni insurgents to provide a security service has worked. "It's also fair to say that in conversations with their sheikhs, they indicated they had become more unhappy with al Qaeda and their tactics," he said. "Al Qaeda was particularly brutal in the South Baghdad area and out west in Anbar."
The third reason for the drop in violence is because there were more U.S. soldiers on the street corners. "They have an impact on security wherever they are located," Oates said. "So the sheer increase in U.S. forces over the last several months has had an impact."
The division should be able to maintain security with one fewer maneuver brigade because conditions on the ground have changed, he said.
"One of the conditions I expect to see changed is (that) the Iraqi security forces ... should be in better shape than when I left," he said. "The reports out of the country are that the army and police are making progress.
"It's not a zero-sum game, you don't just lose coalition force and start all over again," he continued. "And now we have the Sons of Iraq – the former concerned local citizens – and that changes the security conditions on the ground."
The general is most interested to learn how the Iraqi government has changed in the area. "I'm interested to see what's changed from the Iraqi government, from the provincial level down to the local level," he said. "We were really struggling the last time I was there to get the linkage established in terms of employment."
Oates said it is important to assess how to move forward in the country. As he takes command in Multinational Division Center, the last units of the surge will be redeploying.
Getting provincial elections in place will be helpful in a number of areas, the general said, especially in giving the Sunni population a feeling of belonging and security.
More than half of 10th Mountain Division's soldiers have combat experience in either Iraq or Afghanistan, Oates noted. They train across the range of counterinsurgency measures all the way to high-kinetic operations.
"The conditions under which they find themselves will dictate how they act," he said. "There can be a real challenge if you go into a situation thinking that sweetness and light has broken out. You lower your guard. We won't do that."