By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 26, 2009 - As Iraqis prepare to choose their provincial leadership this week in their first nationwide elections in three years, an Army colonel near the end of a 14-month tour told Pentagon reporters today he's amazed by the progress the country has made.
"Being here to watch the Iraqis conduct these elections is a perfect conclusion to this tour, and marks an important milestone on this nation's continuing development in democracy and freedom for its people," Army Col. Todd McCaffrey, commander of the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, said from Iraq during a video news conference here. "While the upcoming elections are a culmination of our tour, there has been much progress that's brought us to this point."
The rural outskirts of Baghdad's northern and western belt, where McCaffrey and his troops have been operating for more than a year, have kept pace with much of the rest of the country's progress. Violence is down, infrastructure and economic development continues to improve steadily, and Iraqi security forces have become increasingly capable, McCaffrey said. "During our period of service here, we've focused on assisting the Iraqis in securing their population from insurgent threats, assisting them to improve local governmental capacity and improving the capabilities of the security forces," he said. "There's no doubt we've made progress across each of these areas."
In September 2007, attack levels in northwestern Baghdad were more than 500 percent higher than what they are now, he said. Iraqi army, police and civilian security groups have prevented insurgents from sheltering in populated villages and towns the way they once could, making it difficult for insurgents to plan and stage attacks.
Insurgents increasingly are being forced to move their operations to more secluded, rural areas. Some attacks do occur, but not often and without the same effect, because local security forces have been successful in keeping one step ahead of the insurgency, he said.
"It's now very common to go for days without a single violent act in our area," the colonel said. "And when attacks do occur, they tend to be isolated, ineffective and focused on the Iraqi security forces, which operate independently and provide the day-to-day security across the region."
Although violence always is a potential threat, McCaffrey said, he expects the security trend to continue throughout the elections. The army and police have been cooperating and planning well together, and coalition forces are confident with Iraqi security forces leading their efforts, he added.
"[It's] very clear that the Iraqi security forces have the lead here and that they are in control," he said. "I sleep quite soundly at night knowing how the Iraqis are operating here."
McCaffrey recalled the 2005 Iraqi elections, during which he was deployed to Mosul. He said this week's elections are drawing overwhelming support and excitement that he didn't see four years ago. Regardless of religious sect, Iraqis in northwestern Baghdad are anxious to exercise their voice and elect their provincial leaders, he said.
"Candidate posters seem to be everywhere, and there's a palatable excitement in the air," McCaffrey said. "The Iraqi security forces are well prepared, they're well rehearsed, and I believe they have a very solid handle on election security. This is, without question, an Iraqi-led event, and we're honored to be able to see the democratic process up close and personal.
"As we leave here, we can look back and view the acceleration of progress we've seen that's now culminated in a remarkable month," he continued. "From the successful implementation of the security agreement on Jan. 1 to the elections we will see in a few days, I'll leave Iraq very optimistic about what we've seen, what we've been able to contribute and the direction in which this nation is headed."