By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 4, 2008 - Iraqi security forces have made such an improvement that coalition forces in Baghdad's Rashid district are able to turn their attention to rebuilding the area, the commander of the brigade assigned there said today. Army Col. Ted Martin, commander of the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, said he has seen "phenomenal progress" since he was first in Iraq in 2003.
"For the first time, I've seen Iraqi security forces that can plan, prepare and execute first-class offensive operations," Martin said via video teleconference from Camp Falcon. "I've also seen a high level of trust and respect by the people of Rashid for their own Army and police forces."
Iraqi and coalition forces are working closely together in the region, which once was one of the most dangerous areas in Iraq -- a battleground containing al-Qaida in Iraq and Iranian-sponsored "special groups." In July 2007, 824 attacks took place in the district – a daily average of 27 attacks. But coalition and Iraqi forces have worked together to turn the situation around, Martin said.
"Together, we conduct relentless offensive operations designed to kill, capture or drive from Rashid anyone who threatens the safety and security of the people we have sworn to protect," he said.
When the brigade arrived in March, an average of five attacks per day took place in the district. Today, the daily average is 1.5 attacks, the colonel said.
"I believe this reduction in violence is a direct result of the conditions set by the success of the surge in forces and combat power," Martin said. "We built on this success and have seen a dramatic reduction in violence in the past four months."
Other statistics reinforce this conclusion. April saw 18 rocket and mortar attacks in the district, and only three took place in July. April's 69 roadside bomb attacks reduced to 37 in July. There were 30 direct-fire attacks in April and five in July.
Roadside bombs continue to be the biggest threat to coalition and Iraqi forces, Martin said, noting they are are "emplaced by special group criminal who operate as part of the illegal militias in Baghdad." These groups continue to try to destabilize the Iraqi government, he said.
"I think they want to undermine the government, and they're using the neighborhoods of Rashid as a battlefield," Martin said. "I'm pretty confident that we've denied them that capability."
The biggest change in the region is in the mood of the people of the district, Martin said. Since May, the local population has provided the intelligence helpful to coalition and Iraqi forces in taking on the enemy, he said. "There seemed to be a wedge that was placed between the people and the insurgents, and we tried to exploit that," he added.
Martin said the reduction in violence has allowed him and his soldiers to shift their focus toward improving essential services and helping their Iraqi security forces partners. "It is my firm belief that the decisive defeat of the special group criminal and militias in May and June of this year has opened a window of opportunity for us to make substantial and lasting improvements in the Rashid district," he said.
Working with Iraqi forces, Martin's brigade has detained 56 al-Qaida in Iraq operatives in the past four months, and brigade soldiers continue to pursue them relentlessly. "We have captured more than 170 special group criminal associated with the Jaysh al-Mahdi militia," Martin said.
Coalition and Iraqi forces are seeking to exploit the opportunity the relative peace has provided to cement the progress in place.
"Seizing on the improved security conditions, we are pursuing reconstruction projects to improve the quality of life for the Iraqi people," Martin said.
So far, the brigade has completed 22 projects valued at more than $5 million, and 78 active projects are valued at more than $45 million.
"We've also proposed an additional 117 projects valued at more than $26 million," the colonel said. "Each project is coordinated with the Rashid district council leadership to ensure that we are meeting the needs of the people."
The Iraqi government is kicking in on the reconstruction effort in the district, contributing $18 million in government funds, and Martin said he expects that amount to rise as the government becomes more established.