By John D. Banusiewicz
American Forces Press Service
May 25, 2008 - Increasingly capable Iraqi security forces and increased participation by nonmilitary U.S. agencies have been instrumental in improving conditions in Iraq, a top coalition commander there said in a "CNN Late Edition" interview with Wolf Blitzer. In the interview, taped May 23 and aired today, Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, commander of Multinational Division North, acknowledged that in the summer of 2007 he believed the U.S. military was "carrying the burden of this conflict on our shoulders."
"What I've seen since I've been over here now is we now have partners over here," he said. "The State Department has filled up the provincial reconstruction teams. [The U.S. Agency for International Development] is starting to do some significant work out here. The Department of Agriculture [and] the Department of Treasury are all contributing workers over here. So I think we're seeing other governmental organizations contribute, and that has been significant."
Hertling, who also commands the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division, is serving his second tour of duty in Iraq. He noted the improvement he's seen in Iraqi security forces.
"I partner with four different Iraqi divisions up here now," he said. "And over the nine months we've been here, we have seen just an unbelievable improvement in those forces."
In providing an assessment of conditions in his northern Iraq area of responsibility, the general explained that his forces have been securing major cities and pursuing a variety of enemies.
"And we have done that in Hawijah, in Samarra, in Kirkuk, and turned over to, in that particular city, the Iraqi police, which is really a centerpiece now," he said.
In Mosul, he said, his troops have had to contend with a number of al-Qaida-led extremist and terrorist groups, along with criminal activity. "It really is a group of individuals up there, led by al-Qaida," he said.
Southward toward Baghdad, in cities such as Diyala, Baqouba and Muqdadiyah, Multinational Division North forces have been continuing to pursue al-Qaida, Hertling said. But often, he noted, when al-Qaida leaves an area, other criminal agents begin to intimidate the population.
"So we've been attempting to do that balancing act -- a very complex situation in Diyala province, which is our southernmost province, bumping up against Baghdad," he said. "It has been just a complex counterinsurgency operation. And you throw in a little bit of criminal activity as well, and we're fighting on several fronts with our Iraqi partners."
Northern Iraq has become more volatile in the last six months, Hertling said, because enemy fighters have been flowing in as they've been routed from Baghdad and other areas.
"As Baghdad has become more secure, some of the insurgents, specifically AL-Qaida, have moved to the north," he said. "As Anbar [province] has gone through the awakening, ... al-Qaida has moved to the east and then up. We've seen foreign fighters crossing the borders with Syria. And Mosul is a very historic and popular place, and it has ebbed and flowed in terms of the amount of insurgent actions up there.
"We have seen an increase, a huge spike in the last several months up there," he continued. "And over, oh, the last three or four months or so, we have done some things in that city with both coalition forces and the Iraqi security forces to improve the security for the people."
The general noted that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asked the Iraqi army commander in northern Iraq to mount an operation against insurgents in Mosul.
"It was originally called 'Lion's Roar,' as it's been reported," hurtling said. "It's now called 'Umm al-Rabiain,' or 'Mother of Two Springs,' which is the nickname for the city. ... Over the last several months, there have been a lot of contentious fights, both with coalition forces and Iraq security forces against the insurgents in that city and in all of Ninevah province, quite frankly."
As for Iranian involvement in his area, Hertling said he can't say he's seen evidence of Iranian government involvement.
"I can certainly say we have seen some Iranian-made weapons, certainly not as much as I'd seen in the south or even in Baghdad. But we have seen some Iranian-made weapons in the northern part of the country."
With the United States observing the Memorial Day holiday May 26, Hertling expressed the hope that Americans would take time to consider the holiday's meaning. He noted that before the interview he had attended a memorial service for a U.S. soldier who had been killed near Samarra.
"I just happened to look at my watch and I said, 'Hey, there are probably a lot of people back in the United States right now trying to figure out how to get out of work early so they can start their long weekend, and here we are, memorializing this young soldier ... who gave his life for this cause. And I'm wondering if people truly understand that.
"And I hope during this Memorial Day weekend that people pause and reflect how much service their soldiers, Marines, airmen and Navy sailors are giving, not only to protect the freedoms of the United States, but to help -- really help -- the freedoms of this new emerging country over here in Iraq," he continued. "So I hope everybody just takes a few minutes on this Memorial Day to thank a soldier or, more importantly, thank a family member of a soldier, because they are sacrificing just as much."