By Navy Seaman William Selby
Special to American Forces Press Service
Sept. 12, 2008 - The economy in Iraq's Salahuddin province has made significant gains over the past year due to the rise in agriculture and the improvement of Iraqi security forces, an Army colonel serving there said today. "What we've seen over the past year is a marked increase in security," Col. Michael McBride, commander of the 101st Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, told to bloggers and online journalists during a teleconference. "From this time last year to today, our attack levels are down approximately 75 percent."
McBride said the security continues to get better across the board, and he emphasized the notable improvements in Samarra, Beiji and in deposed dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.
"We've come to a point here now, with the security level as it is, where we are being able to now focus more on reconstruction than we were ... five or six months ago," McBride said.
Up to this point, the main focus always had been security. Now, the focus is shared equally among security, reconstruction and governance, the colonel said.
But while agriculture is being developed, he acknowledged, "it's something that we're lagging behind on."
"The success of the farmers in this area is mixed," McBride said. "In the east they're doing fairly well, because there's a fairly abundant water source and a good canal system. And in the west ... since there's no canal system that ties them in, they're struggling more."
McBride said eastern farmers say the success they've had is a result of the increase in security forces. "Last year, if you lived in Balad or you lived in Samarra, you didn't think about taking your stuff to the market," he said. "They would not have thought about doing that a year ago."
Though farmers have been challenged by increasing prices of fertilizers -- a result of rising fuel cost -- as well as a drought this spring, McBride said, "they're doing a heck of a lot better than they were last year."
McBride addressed several other reasons for the improved security, citing the 7,000 "Sons of Iraq" citizen security group members who are spread throughout the province.
"Without the Sons of Iraq, we would not be where we are today," McBride said. "Back in November, if you were on patrol in Samarra, whether you were Iraqi Army or U.S. Army soldier, you were running from house to house, in the eastern part of the city, because you were going to get shot at."
McBride explained that at about this time last year, Iraqi leaders expressed a desire to form the "Awakening" program, known now as the Sons of Iraq, and almost immediately made a positive impact. Suniyah, for example, was a haven for the enemy, but had a radical transformation once the program came into place, McBride said.
In addition to the Iraqi security forces, McBride recognized the provincial and central governments for making strides, but said he added that they're not yet where they need to be.
"With greater support, at least from the view of the provincial government, from the central government, we could be moving at a much more rapid pace," he said.
Even though Salahuddin province has made some momentous improvements, McBride said, there is still room to press on.
"We have not, in my opinion, held the security gains that we've worked hard to achieve with our Iraqi partners to begin any kind of drawdown here," McBride said. "We are still ... in some places in a pretty active fight."
(Navy Seaman William Selby works for New Media directorate of the Defense Media Activity.)