By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
July 7, 2008 - The U.S. military's top-ranking officer encountered one of Iraq's most dangerous areas today and saw first-hand the improvements Iraqi and U.S. forces have made during recent months. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, received a glimpse of the success that has seen attack levels in Iraq fall to their lowest in four years -- a 90 percent decline in attacks during the past year alone. The progress in security has allowed coalition forces to focus more on other issues, military officials in Baghdad said.
Less than 60 days ago, the streets of Jamilla Market in Baghdad's Sadr City district weren't even safe to walk. Now shops are open and business is coming back, said Mullen, who spoke with local merchants as well as U.S. troops during his tour of the two-mile stretch of market.
"We didn't know where Sadr City was going to go," the chairman said to soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team. "Thanks to you, the area is much better and safer; you've really made an impact."
Senior leaders from the 4th Infantry Division and its 3rd Brigade Combat Team explained to Mullen that a continuous presence and increased confidence in the Iraqi security forces are the main reasons for the progress. Iraqi security forces are better equipped and better prepared than they've been in many months, said Army Col. John Hort, the brigade's commander.
The 4th Infantry Division soldiers patrol the streets five to seven times a day, and at least two patrols are conducted jointly with Iraqi forces, said Army Capt. Erik Oksenvaag, commander of the company responsible for security in the market and some surrounding areas.
"Sadr City has been in a tremendous fight to get to this stage," Mullen said during a media roundtable in Baghdad. "The commanders are telling me the fight is being carried out in great confidence, and they have confidence in the Iraqi security forces – that they've seen progress."
Mullen said he remains "modestly optimistic," and acknowledged that Sadr City has a long way to go before it will be in reach of full government control. He said it's going to take continued focus and one step at a time in one area at a time.
"I don't see an end state right now in Sadr City, because it's got a long way to go," he said. "It was a place that not too many months ago was a big question for all of us, but continued progress will create a more complete answer down the road. You have to remember that success is a marathon, not a sprint."
Although complete success may not happen overnight, Mullen said, his walk through the market and other areas today was a sure indicator of progress in areas where only a few months ago people couldn't safely walk.