By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
May 12, 2008 - Violence in Iraq's Kirkuk province Iraq has dropped by 70 percent, and coalition and Iraqi forces have "virtually destroyed" al-Qaida in Iraq in the region, the commander of the U.S. brigade combat team in the area said today. Army Col. David Paschal, commander of 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, said that as security improves in the strategic northern province, changes are happening in the economy and in governance that help cement the security progress in place.
Four developments have helped the battle against insurgents in the Rhode Island-sized province of 1.5 million, Paschal told Pentagon reporters in a teleconference from his headquarters at Contingency Operating Base Speicher. The developments are:
-- Precision targeting against insurgent leadership;
-- The growing capabilities and capacities of the Iraqi police and army;
-- Establishment of a "Sons of Iraq" program, in which citizens aid in the security effort; and
-- Partnership with Kirkuk's provincial reconstruction team, composed of State Department and military personnel working along with experts from other governmental and nongovernmental agencies to aid local development.
The brigade arrived in September 2007 and has killed or captured 20 high-value targets. U.S. soldiers also captured 63 "persons of interest" in the area, the colonel said. Enemy activity began trending down in August and remains low, he added.
None of this would be possible without the improvement in the Iraqi security forces, Paschal said. Iraqi police are responsible for maintaining security in Kirkuk, a city of roughly 800,000 people. The 15th Brigade of the 4th Iraqi Army Division conducts independent, intelligence-driven operations outside the city. The Iraqi army unit has also conducted joint operations with the fledgling Iraqi air force.
The Sons of Iraq program has been a cornerstone to security in the region, he said, noting that 400 men who were part of the Sons of Iraq program from the brigade's Arab areas are graduating from two months of police training this week. They'll be reassigned to the outer district on the western side of the province.
With more security, the Iraqi people are feeling more confident, Paschal said.
"The information and actionable intelligence that they provide has grown exponentially," he said. "That actionable intelligence is in the form of the turning of caches, location of [roadside bombs] and, in many cases, instances of insurgent or terrorist leaders throughout the province," he said.
The reconstruction team helps rebuild the province and gives the Iraqis the tangible benefits of peace.
Kirkuk is the northern oil center of Iraq, and it is providing the lifeblood to the country. "Since our arrival, there has not been an interdiction on the oil pipeline," Paschal said. "In fact, we have exceeded all ... pre-war level exports. Just last month, the Northern Oil Company exported 13 and a half million barrels of oil, which has been a phenomenal increase in its capacity."
Kirkuk may turn over to provincial Iraqi control in November or December this year. "That will be based on the capability of the Iraqi security forces to maintain the security gains that we've achieved and continue to defeat the insurgents," the colonel said. "I think it all ties back into the economic opportunities that we are working in conjunction with the provincial reconstruction team."
The PRT is working with the Iraqi government in sponsoring a technical training school in the province, and it is working on an adult literacy course. The team also is encouraging outside investors to come to the province. "With the increased security, we've had some outside investors come that are interested in ... conducting some projects within the Kirkuk province," Paschal said.
The Iraqi government also is hosting a small-loans program, anywhere from about $2,500 to $10,000, which opens up small businesses. "With the increased security, what we're starting to see is some of these that I would refer to as smaller 'mom and pop' businesses that are coming back into play," Paschal said.
The challenge ahead is to sustain the new security climate, Paschal told reporters. "When we first arrived, the enemy was the al-Qaida in Iraq," he said. "We have virtually defeated al-Qaida in Iraq within the Kirkuk province. It's important that we continue to maintain the pressure."