By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 15, 2008 - After three months commanding Multinational Division Southeast in Iraq, British Marine Maj. Gen. Andy Salmon said he's struck by progress since the Iraqi Army's "Charge of the Knights" operation this spring and the way Iraqi security forces have stepped up since securing Basra. Speaking to Pentagon reporters via teleconference, Salmon cited low levels of violence, on par with crime and murder rates in Manchester, England, and lower on a per-capita basis than in Washington.
"Overall, there seems to be a spirit of reconciliation and peace in the air here in Basra," he said. "That's really constant."
People express confidence in the Iraqi security forces, who have reciprocated in their approach to the local population, Salmon said. He noted that during the recent Ramadan observance, the security forces sponsored feasts in some of the most socially deprived parts of town.
Meanwhile, other parts of the city hosted a huge Eid celebration to mark the end of Ramadan.
"It was the first time in three years that people were downtown in restaurants, dancing, singing into the early hours with the music and really celebrating with fireworks the festival of Eid," Salmon said.
The celebrations represent a broader sense of calm in Basra, thanks to "a truly joint coalition effort there" and increasingly capable Iraqi security forces, he said.
Iraqi security forces are "developing particularly well," with the help of U.S. and British military transition teams, Salmon said. A new initiative in which U.S. military police training teams teach, coach and mentor their Iraqi counterparts and completion of joint security stations across the city is paying off.
"These are stations which will enable the Iraqi security forces to really have a firm grip and control of Basra and enable the police and the military to work together in a much more coordinated way, in a spirit of full coordination," he said.
But Salmon cautioned against an overly rosy assessment, noting the porous border with Iran and the need for various security agencies to work together better to shore it up.
"We've got to make sure that we keep the insurgents out over the longer term," he said.
In addition to more Iraqi border security forces – a battalion to a brigade's worth – Salmon cited the need for better technology and command and control to monitor the vast border and act on illegal movement across it.
Salmon also noted challenges in social and economic development. The shortage of jobs and electricity remains, and municipal authorities have a way to go to improve essential service delivery. New joint reconstruction action teams are evaluating these shortcomings to determine the best way to fix them, he said.
Salmon said he's hopeful that continuing efforts to improve security while promoting economic development will create a sense of normalcy in Basra.
"The people of Basra don't really want to look back, and there are opportunities there for the taking," he said. "So it's just a question of really helping them take those opportunities."