By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 1, 2008 - Iraqis in Karbala and Babil provinces welcomed the Nov. 27 passing of the U.S.-Iraq status-of-forces agreement, recognizing the important role the United States plays in Iraqi security and governance, a senior U.S. military officer posted in Iraq said today. "[The Iraqis] are generally optimistic. ... [The agreement] is a big deal, a historic event," Army Col. Tom James, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team, said from Iraq during a video news conference with Pentagon reporters.
James said he and his unit have been anticipating the agreement for months, slowly reducing their presence to more of a supporting role and adjusting their operations. The increasing capacity of the Iraqi Army and police has allowed coalition forces to take a back seat to the Iraqis in security operations, the colonel told reporters.
"The Iraqi security forces are in the lead, and we're in support of them," he said.
A year ago today, when James and his unit assumed responsibility of operations in Karbala and Babil, they were seeing more than eight attacks each day. Now, fewer than two attacks are reported each week, he said, attributing the downturn in violence to the competence of Iraqi forces.
Coalition forces in the area have transitioned from operating 14 individual base camps to only four. Iraqi forces took over operation and manning requirements for those posts, James said, which has helped to build confidence in them from the local populace.
"The population believes in the Iraqi army and police and no longer allows sanctuary to extremists," he said. "The capabilities of the Iraqi security forces have improved dramatically over the last year, enhancing security and enabling positive and real growth in local economies and government."
James said he feels so comfortable and confident in the Iraqi forces there that coalition forces could reduce their numbers by two-thirds. Currently, his brigade consists of around 3,800 troops, but the area could be maintained by a battalion-size element of about 1,000, he said.
"The conditions exist on the ground right now -- operationally with the Iraqi security force capability and the government's ability to control those security forces -- that we could reduce down to about a battalion's worth now," he said. "I mean, the operational set is available now to do that. And we will see that eventually happen, but it will be in the near term."
The agreement passed by Iraq's parliament Nov. 27 takes effect Jan. 1. It replaces the United Nations mandate authorizing the U.S. military presence in Iraq that expires Dec. 31.
The agreement acknowledges that the U.S. troop presence in Iraq is temporary and at the request of the sovereign Iraqi government. It requires U.S. forces to withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than Dec. 31, 2011. U.S. combat forces in Iraq also are required to withdraw from Iraqi cities, villages and localities no later than June 30, 2009.