By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 5, 2009 - The new strategic agreement in Iraq is having minimal impact on troops operating in provinces already under Iraqi control when it took effect Jan. 1, the commander of the 4th Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team told Pentagon reporters today. Army Col. Butch Kievenaar said the bulk of his "Warhorse Brigade" soldiers are conducting operations in southern Iraq's Qadisiyah, Najaf and southern Babil provinces. All three provinces have transitioned to Iraqi control – in July 2008, December 2006 and October 2008, respectively.
In addition, the brigade's cavalry squadron is serving with the 172nd Infantry Brigade in Kabala province. That province was turned over to Iraqi control in October 2007.
"So a lot of the requirements that were specified ... in the strategic agreement were already the requirements for us in operations here," Kievenaar said.
All U.S. military operations in the region are planned and conducted by, with and through Iraqi security forces, he said. "So the provincial government has already been made aware of the operations that we're doing," he added.
In addition, he said, the brigade obtains a warrant through the Iraqi government for anyone it detains. Kievenaar's troops run no detention facility, but instead pass all detainees to the Iraqi army or police for processing before turning them over to the Iraqi civil court system.
"So [the strategic agreement] has a very minimal impact to us here in the province," he said.
Plans call for the Warhorse Brigade to withdraw its forces from the two joint security stations and two combat outposts where it operates alongside Iraqi security forces before June, as required by the strategic agreement. "And that was part of the plan even without that strategic agreement," Kievenaar said.
The impact of the agreement is greater, however, for one of the brigade's two combined arms battalions, operating to the north near Kirkuk. The Tamim province's capital, within the Multinational Division North region, has not yet been turned over to Iraqi provincial control.
"So when the strategic agreement came into effect, it changed some of what they ... were able to do," Kievenaar said. Most notably, the soldiers began obtaining warrants before detaining suspects and began conducting all operations jointly with Iraqi security forces.
Kievenaar said his troops have "very effective partnership programs" with Iraqi security forces, and are playing a key role in training and helping to professionalize their ranks.
Serving his third deployment to Iraq, Kievenaar said he's amazed at the capabilities the Iraqi security forces have gained in the past 18 months. "The progress of the Iraqi security forces from then to now is amazing and rewarding, because I've seen it from the beginning," he said.
Kievenaar conceded that al-Qaida and other extremist elements remain, but said efforts targeting their leaders are paying off.
"What we have right now is a situation where your low-level fighters -- those guys that would then go out and do something if somebody gave them money, gave them direction and gave them resources -- they're still around," he said. "Their leaders have been targeted, picked up or they're hiding in a neighboring country. And every time they ... try to come back into this country, they're effectively targeted and picked up."
Without leadership, money and resources, low-level fighters "basically return to their normal lives," he said.
"And so we have a very safe and secure environment right now," he said, "and I don't see anything on the horizon that their security force, both the police and the army, cannot handle."
Kievenaar expressed confidence that the Iraqis will be sufficiently trained to assume full security responsibility for their country when U.S. troops leave Iraq.
"They still need our help, because they don't have all the enablers that we come with, but they don't need our help on the day-to-day operations," he said. "I believe by the time that we leave here, that we will have taught them how to be able to sustain themselves and sustain their training and to do a more effective targeting" against forces that threaten the Iraqi government.
The Warhorse brigade is four months into a 12-month deployment. Kievenaar reminded reporters that the successes it has made have come at a cost, including three soldiers who drowned on Christmas Eve when a bridge collapsed as their vehicle crossed it.
"I just ask that you remember those fallen heroes, as well as all the other ones who have lost their lives while serving in Iraq," he said. "They may be gone, but as we always say, they are never forgotten."
Kievenaar also extended thanks to the soldiers' families, whom he called "the true heroes of this war."
"They're the ones who make the ultimate sacrifice each time we deploy to defend our nation's freedoms," he said. "They're the ones [who] provide us the strength every day to accomplish the mission."