By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 19, 2008 - The situation in northern Iraq is complex and dangerous, and the upcoming Iraqi elections add further complications, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today. Mullen spoke to reporters traveling with him after finishing a visit to Iraq that began Dec. 17. He said he wasn't surprised by anything he learned during the visit, but that his conversations in the country added context and depth to the issues.
The chairman visited Camp Speicher and the Golden Mosque in Samarra. He traveled to Mosul and Asad. He met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Defense Minister Abdel Qader Jassim Obeidi al-Mufraji and Chief of Defense Gen. Babakir Zebari.
The situation in and around Iraq's third-largest city of Mosul is troubling, Mullen said. The city is the last bastion of al-Qaida in Iraq, as the terror group has been chased out of Anbar province in the west and out of Baghdad. It is desperately trying to hang on in Ninevah province. "They really are on the ropes -- really on the run," Mullen said.
Coalition forces are focusing on the remains of the group, "and we need to finish that," he said.
The chairman also got a full appreciation of the tasks ahead with respect to governance and jobs in Ninevah. He said the Ninevah provincial government is ineffective and cannot generate good governance or start the economic engine of the region. He said he was encouraged by the performance of an Iraqi National police unit that helped tamp down violence in the province, but that much more must be done.
While Mosul's mayor has stepped forward, the governor of the province has not, and that has all eyes on the provincial elections scheduled for Jan. 31, the chairman said.
The problem then will be for Iraqi leaders in the north to manage expectations, the chairman said.
"This will be particularly critical for the Sunnis," he said. "[They] didn't participate in the last election, but are, by all indications, going to turn out in big numbers for the provincial and national elections."
Those Sunni voters will have expectations from the election, but there will be a gap between expectations and reality, the chairman said. Part of that will be the time it will take to set up the provincial government after the election. The voters will need to understand the election won't provide immediate gratification, , he said.
Though the elections are an Iraqi responsibility, Mullen said, coalition forces will provide support if asked.
Tensions between Kurds and Sunnis in and around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk also are a matter of concern in the north, the chairman added.
In Baghdad during his visit, the chairman discussed the details of Iraq's status-of-forces agreement with the United States. Under that agreement, the Iraqis will be in the lead in operations throughout the country. "We also discussed moving forward in a strategic partnership, which both countries want to do," he said.
He also discussed continued training for the Iraqi security forces and budget issues facing Iraqi leaders. "The price of oil has dropped," the chairman said. "The Iraqi government is going to have to make some hard decisions with respect to the budget for the Ministry of Defense."
The chairman also spoke of the integration of the "Sons of Iraq" citizen security groups into the police and army. He noted the program that is transferring responsibility for paying the almost 100,000 Sons of Iraq to the Iraqi government has been under way for two months.
It is critical that these young men are employed, Mullen said, adding that while 100,000 people in a nation with a population of 25 million doesn't seem like much, no one should underestimate the importance of the move.
"They are making a difference," he said. "Another thing that comes from this trip – from being there – is we don't underestimate the significance of this. This is particularly crucial for the future in terms of stability for creating stability or creating the potential for instability if they don't get integrated. Progress so far has been good, [but] there's still a long way to go."