By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 23, 2008 - With life returning to normal in Iraq's Anbar province, the way forward now is driven more by the economy than security, the commander of Multinational Force West said today. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. John F. Kelly spoke to Pentagon reporters from his headquarters in Fallujah. He said coalition forces continue to mentor Iraqi security forces, but the Iraqis are in the lead and have become more capable and confident.
Anbar has been under provincial Iraqi control since the beginning of September, and the coalition and Iraqi forces are putting in place policies that minimize the military disruption to life in the province.
"We started a share-the-road program, where no longer would Iraqi traffic have to do anything particularly different when they came upon military convoys," Kelly said. The command also moved most of the convoys off the roads during the day. The long lines of military vehicles and civilian big rigs now travel between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.
"We started to tear down literally hundreds of checkpoints," the general said. The need for the checkpoints is past, he said, noting he has launched "kind of an operation Rudy Giuliani" that cleans up the cities. Rolling up the barbed wire helps convince the average Anbari that the improved security situation is real, he said.
The coalition forces in Anbar are still engaged, but are in an overwatch posture, he said. "We still have Marines and some U.S. Army soldiers as police advisors that still live inside police stations, but down to a very small number," he said. The Iraqis are, for all intents and purposes, on their own, the general told reporters.
The Iraqi government is funding more projects in the province. In fact, Kelly said, he actually turned in Commanders Emergency Response Program money and has recommended the amount allotted be reduced next year. CERP provides commanders with money for local reconstruction and infrastructure projects.
About 28,000 Iraqi police serve in the province, along with 9,000 Iraqi soldiers and roughly 25,000 coalition Marines and soldiers.
While the security situation in the province is vastly improved compared to 2006, when Marine planners said Anbar had been lost to al-Qaida, it can still change, Kelly warned.
"Anbar is not an island," he said. "If it was an island, we could look at doing certain things in terms of drawdown, but it's not. We have al-Qaida still here in Iraq. I'd characterize them as ... 'al-Qaida refugees.' They're hiding out. The insurgency has lost its network; it's lost the support of the people."
Though individual cells of terrorists remain, the general said, the insurgency has been de-clawed.
Now the impetus has to be on building essential services and providing jobs, and ensuring the Iraqi government is imposing the rule of law in the province, he said. Still, the coalition continues to have a mission.
"Even though we're beyond the kinetic combat-type mission, there's ... a sense of security we bring, particularly as we roll into the elections, which they very much look forward to," Kelly said. "I believe most of [the Iraqis] would tell you that after the elections – so long as they go well and they're transparent and all of that – ... I think they'll start to really settle down and be comfortable with their own central government and with themselves."
Border security with Syria continues to be a problem, Kelly said, and the command is redoubling its efforts to deal with the border situation. The Iraqi borders with Saudi Arabia and Jordan are not leaking goods or people the way the Syrian border is, he said. The Saudi and Jordanian troops are professional and in control on their sides of the border, Kelly said, but the same cannot be said for Syria.
With no physical feature delineating the border, engineers are building a berm and ditch system 700 to 800 kilometers long to contain border crossing, Kelly said. Some foreign fighters are coming into Iraq over the Syrian border, he said, but far fewer than in May, when al-Qaida operatives slipped over the border and murdered and beheaded 11 Iraqi border guards.
"At that point, [the border guards] got very serious," Kelly said. "They got very serious about protecting themselves and protecting the border."
Anbaris are mostly Sunni Muslims, and they are concerned about Iran, Kelly said. They are concerned about Iranian influence with Shiia Muslims and as a state that sponsors terrorism. They also are afraid of an actual incursion by Iran, Kelly said.
The general said the battle in Anbar is in its last stages, but the last stages are not military.
"It belongs to the provincial government and the government in Baghdad to make the connection with the province," he said. "As kinetics have gone down, as the gunfights have gone down, as the Iraqi security forces have started to take control, the next obvious step is to just get things rebuilt and re-established, whether it's health care, education and all that."