By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 9, 2008 - Forces have been successful in setting the conditions for sustainable security in Iraq, but significant challenges remain, a senior military commander in the country said yesterday. Army Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, commander of Multinational Division Baghdad, said the Iraqi capital now averages only four violent attacks a day, and that only one of those typically targets civilians. Hammond called al-Qaida's efforts there significantly degraded, but conceded the terror group still is able to carry out violent and devastating attacks.
"We will pursue 'em to kill or detain 'em. Simple as that," Hammond said. "It is rule of law, and they will follow the rule of law here in Baghdad."
Throughout Baghdad, coalition and Iraqi forces have uncovered 2,000 weapons caches since December, many turned in by citizens who now feel safer to do so, Hammond said.
The general credited the success to the partnership between coalition and Iraqi security forces. Almost all operations there now are conducted in partnership with the Iraqi security forces, he said.
"My mantra is 'attack, attack, attack' whether it's targeting the enemy or it's clearing operations or it's distributing micro grants, or whether it's improving the lives of the Iraqi people," Hammond said. "We always stay on the offense, focused on what's next best for the people."
The improved security has made room for the Iraqi government to improve the quality of life for residents, he said. Hammond called the list of completed construction projects in the city "staggering."
"While we still have much to do, there has been significant improvement across this city," he said. "You can see the results as you move around. There's markets full of people. There's parks full of people, swimming pools with kids swimming. Frankly, this change is quite impressive to see."
The commander cited the recent passage of the Provincial Election Law, the return of displaced civilians and the Iraqi government's inclusion of the "Sons of Iraq" citizen security groups as signs of major progress.
"These are all critically important here for the future of Baghdad," he said. "They must succeed and our job is to ensure their success."
The Iraqi government will start paying the Sons of Iraq salaries this month, Hammond said. Over time, the plan is to transition those serving as Sons of Iraq into long-term jobs within the government or security forces, he added.
Twenty percent of the Sons of Iraq will transition into security forces. More than 3,400 already have transitioned to the Iraqi police in Baghdad, and 7,000 more want to become police, Hammond said. Their requests are awaiting the Interior Minister's approval.
"The important thing we should recognize is that the government is committed. The government is committed to taking care of the Sons of Iraq," Hammond said. "We will not abandon the Sons of Iraq. We will continue in partnership with the Iraqi security forces to ensure they get paid and that the transition occurs to meaningful employment."
As the security situation in Baghdad improves, more than 36,000 displaced families have returned, Hammond said. Some $70 million has been invested in more than 2oo projects, and more than $85 million is being spent on improving essential services.
More than 3,500 businesses have started as a result of micro grants, the general said.
"We've generated, we think, over about 64,000 jobs here in Baghdad," Hammond said. "And the micro grant program we have has generated, on its own, over 13,000 jobs."
Forces are working with the Education Ministry to continue to improve access to schools, Hammond said. And under the lead of the Iraqi Health Minister, more than $1.3 million went to refurbishing 12 key health clinics in Baghdad.
Essential services such as sewer, water, electricity, trash and medical care still need significant improvements across the city, Hammond said.
"Life is returning to normal one step, one day at a time here in Baghdad," Hammond said.
John Bass, director of Provincial Reconstruction Team Baghdad, joined Hammond at the briefing and said that while much has been done, there is more to come.
It's not possible to correct the long period of neglect and the damage caused by terrorism and conflict over a number of years in a short number of months, Bass said. New infrastructure is needed to keep pace with Baghdad's growing population and needs, he said. But also challenging, he said, will be keeping up with the increased demand from people whose expectations of the government are rising.
"They're hungry for better living conditions. They want to see a stronger economy and more employment opportunities," Bass said. "And after coming out of a period of conflict, it's understandable that people would be impatient to see those changes realized."