By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
May 15, 2008 - A mix of force, good governance and economic stimuli has resulted in a turnaround for an area in Iraq that once was a hotbed of Sunni and Shiite insurgents. The 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team is completing a 15-month tour as part of Multinational Division Center, and the unit commander, Army Col. Wayne W. Grigsby Jr., spoke to Pentagon reporters yesterday about the deployment.
The "Sledgehammer" brigade arrived in February 2007 as part of the surge of additional forces into Iraq. Violent crime was out of control, Grigsby said, and al-Qaida in Iraq intimidated Sunni portions of the area, allowing the terrorist group to use them as safe havens.
"In our time here, murders have declined by greater than 50 percent, from 631 in '06 to 253 in '07," Grigsby said in a video hook-up from Baghdad. "Shop owners are selling their goods in revitalized markets, and we are now down to maybe one attack every other day."
The heavy brigade accomplished this by conducting counterinsurgency operations. "We wanted to bloody the nose of the enemy and make them fear us," he said. "We did bloody the nose of the enemy, and the enemy does fear us, both coalition forces and Iraqi security forces. We never forgot what a U.S. Army heavy brigade combat team is built to do: to close with and destroy the enemy."
Brigade soldiers killed 160 enemy combatants and detained more than 500 suspected criminals. "We cleared every enemy sanctuary that existed prior to our arrival," the colonel said.
This has not been without cost. Twenty-nine brigade soldiers have been killed, and 162 were wounded. But the level of violence went from four to five attacks per day to an average of an attack every two days.
In and around Salman Pak -- a majority Sunni area -- al-Qaida and other Sunni extremist groups have been decimated.
"We estimate there are three Sunni extremist groups of no more than 10 personnel per group in our battle space, disrupted and not able to synchronize operations," Grigsby said. "We killed or captured their leaders, denied them use of safe houses and support zones, and with our 'Sons of Iraq' allies we are sitting in the former supply lines, holding the terrain, not letting the extremists come back in."
The Sons of Iraq are local citizens who assist with security efforts in their neighborhoods.
Though their operations brought security to the region, the soldiers of the brigade weren't solely about force. They worked to build relationships with the various ethnic groups, tribes and sheikhs.
"Since we worked out of eight patrol bases and four joint security sites in the middle of population centers, we never commuted to work," Grigsby said. "When a combat patrol began each day, Sledgehammer soldiers were already among their neighbors, living with them."
They also lived with Iraqi security forces. Grigsby said the unit worked with an outstanding Iraqi national police brigade and very capable Iraqi army units. U.S. soldiers will continue to work with local police to improve their community policing, the colonel said.
Security was the bedrock of the progress. The Americans and Iraqis gave the residents their communities back, Grigsby told reporters.
"By taking extremists and criminals off the streets in Jisr Diyala, Wahida, Salman Pak and Nahrawan, we emboldened the good people to step back into the traditional roles of leadership -- leadership by the tribal leaders, leadership by local governmental officials -- rather than leadership by fear, where individuals use murder [and] intimidation to control the masses," he said.
Markets, water distribution systems, sewage treatment plants, schools and health clinics all followed. The unit even helped Iraqis build a soccer stadium. Employment also has followed. The Narwan brick factory in the region now employs 15,000 Iraqis, up from 3,000 a year ago.
Money, too, has followed. In 2007, the Iraqi government spent about $1 million in the region. In 2008, the government already has spent $86.1 million for projects and improvements.
The unit's soldiers head back to Fort Benning, Ga., knowing they have made a difference, Grigsby said.
"We have seen a significant reduction in violence," he said. "We have seen the economy spring back to life. We have seen the local governance structure continue to mature and progress. We most definitely have momentum, and we have made gains."
The brigade is one of the most deployed units in the Army. It was part of the original thrust to Baghdad in 2003, was back again in 2005, and is completing its current mission now. Some 60 percent of the soldiers in the brigade are combat veterans from previous deployments. They are passing along their hard lessons to the 1st Armored Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, home-based in Germany.
Grigsby said 2nd Brigade will continue the momentum his brigade began, because the gains in the region remain tenuous. To ensure stability, coalition and Iraqi forces must continue "to hunt the enemy where he sleeps, and we will continue to assist our Iraqi partners where they look to make improvements."