By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 17, 2009 - Although police in Iraq's Salahuddin province still require U.S. military support to professionalize, equip and train their officers, they are leading the counterinsurgency effort, the commander of American forces there said today. "The security situation here has improved dramatically in the past year, and much of that progress is directly attributable to the provincial Iraqi police," Army Col. Walter Piatt, commander of 25th Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, told Pentagon reporters in a video teleconference.
Piatt said Iraqi security forces have had no problem implementing the U.S.-Iraq security agreement, which calls for U.S. forces to recede to a supporting role of Iraqi security efforts. By June, U.S. forces hope to decrease their footprint in Salahuddin from operating out of 20 base camps to only eight, he said.
"Here in Salahuddin, the Iraqi security forces, especially the provincial police, are ready now," the colonel said. "When it comes to fighting and combating terrorism in Salahuddin, the police are the ones who take action first."
The predominantly Sunni province is home to about 1.1 million Iraqis and is located between Baghdad and Mosul, bisected by the Tigris River. More than 17,000 people fill the ranks of the provincial police, while another 9,000 make up the province's "Sons of Iraq" civilian security group, Piatt said.
The provincial elections that took place Jan. 31 are a recent indication of improved security efforts there. As was the case in most of the country, elections in Salahuddin were relatively calm, but to the province's credit, a higher percentage of registered voters in Salahuddin turned out for the elections than in any other province, the colonel said.
Other indications include improvements in the Beiji oil refinery and continued refurbishment of the al-Askari Mosque, better known as the Golden Dome Mosque, in Samarra, he said.
As far as U.S. forces are aware, local security efforts have ended corruption at the refinery, which is Iraq's largest oil producer, Piatt said.
"Much money was being peeled or siphoned off to feed corruption or even, in fact, perhaps even the enemy itself," Piatt explained, "but what we see now is that through leadership [and] development of internal systems within the refinery" is that corruption no longer is an issue.
Though he didn't have specific numbers or statistics available, Piatt said the increased capacity is "tremendous." The refinery is operating consistently between 65 and 80 percent of its capacity, producing more than 290,000 barrels of oil daily, he added.
"The exports are way up," he said. "[The refinery is] making money. It's producing products for the province, but also for the rest of Iraq."
The 2006 and 2007 bombings of the Golden Dome Mosque -- one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam -- divided the country on sectarian lines and resulted in some of the most violent months of the entire Iraq war. Today, refurbishment is well under way "at an accelerated rate," and the once-empty streets of Samarra now flourish with pilgrims and tourists visiting the shrine, Piatt said.
"It was, a very, very good scene for us to come back here and see the progress made in Samarra, where so much was destroyed and so much hope was destroyed," he said.
"There is much more construction to be done on the mosque," he added. "There are some security steps that we must take forward to return the city back to its normal state. But these are two very exciting steps that we have seen and much progress being made in both the Beiji oil refinery and the Golden Mosque in Samarra."