By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
June 30, 2008 - The enemy in the eastern portion of Iraq's Anbar province has been neutralized, the coalition commander in the area said today. Al-Qaida in Iraq still can launch occasional horrific attacks, but in Ramadi and Fallujah -- once strongholds of the terror group -- security is allowing the region to transfer to provincial Iraqi control, Marine Corps Col. Lewis Craparotta, the area's coalition commander, told Pentagon reporters in a briefing via satellite from Camp Fallujah today.
Still, the colonel said, coalition and Iraqi forces must remain vigilant, as al-Qaida wants to come back into the area. "Both cities have historical significance to the insurgents," he explained.
In an attack in Karmah last week, for example, an al-Qaida suicide bomber infiltrated a tribal leader meeting. The explosion killed three Americans and 15 Iraqi leaders.
"We watch the enemy actions very closely," Craparotta said. "We work side by side with both the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army to reduce the enemy's capabilities to execute these attacks, and to prevent them from re-establishing themselves in our area."
Iraqi police and soldiers are full partners in the fight against al-Qaida, the colonel said.
"Yesterday, ... we sat down with the police and the army and talked about this incident in Karmah," he said, "and we decided there was a need to conduct an operation that ... was completed this morning."
Craparotta said he asked the Fallujah police chief what he needed from the coalition to perform the mission. "He told me that he would just as soon I watch my students go out there and execute and that he was confident he could do it, and if I was available to provide a [quick-reaction force], that that would be enough," the colonel said.
While the events in Karmah are tragic, he said, they need to be taken in perspective.
In May and June, five other suicide-vest attacks and a car-bomb attack took place in Fallujah, he said, and Iraqi police and soldiers minimized the effects of these attacks and prevented many more attacks. The police, in fact, have the lead in Ramadi and Fallujah, he added.
"The relationships that we have developed with the Iraqi police have allowed us to reduce slowly our 24-hour presence [and] put them in the lead for most of the day-to-day operations," the colonel said. "There is mutual respect among the forces and a common goal: protecting the citizens. Both the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police leadership have certainly proven capable. They have risen to every occasion, and they have certainly earned the respect of the population."
Coalition experts continue to train the Iraqi security forces. Military and police transition teams work with Iraqi units to hone their skills.
Security progress allows civilian agencies and the Iraqi government to step forward to improve the quality of life for the average Iraqi, Craparotta said. "We've assisted or are assisting the Iraqis with local governance, reconstruction, implementing the rule of law and generally trying to improve the quality of life for the citizens," he said. "Local governments are continuing to prosper, with mayors and city councils taking on more and more responsibility. And we expect that that will accelerate here, as we transition to provincial Iraqi control."
Anbar province will transfer to Iraqi control as soon as the sandstorm across the region subsides. The colonel said he expects that once the transfer occurs, more Iraqi government money will come into the province "so that they can really take advantage of that element of control that they'll gain after the ceremony."
The rule of law is settling into place, and small and mid-sized companies are beginning. Provincial authorities are learning the stresses and challenges of a democratic budgetary process.
"As with most budgets, I think there is always a desire for more," Craparotta said. "But this is ... the first year that we've been able to execute a budget."
Local officials are helping to draft next year's budget now. "We're picking up steam in the budget area and governance, and I think we're on the road to success," the colonel said.