By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 9, 2009 - The security situation in Iraq's Wasit province is stable, but still brittle, the commander of American troops in the area said today. "Things are stable, but there are still some bad people out there," Army Col. Richard Francey, commander of the 41st Fires Brigade, told Pentagon reporters in a video teleconference. "And we continue to work to kill or capture them every single day. It's an ongoing condition."
The province, home to about a million Iraqis, runs south of Baghdad to the Iranian border.
Security conditions in the province, where Iraqi security forces have been in control since Oct. 29, continues to improve, Francey said. The American and Iraqi forces work well together, the colonel said, but more importantly, "the people of Wasit rightfully have confidence in their security forces."
The successful Jan. 31 provincial elections are the latest indication that things are headed in the right direction, he said. "The security was planned, rehearsed and executed by the Iraqi security forces," he pointed out.
The election went smoothly and professionally, and the people believe the election was safe, secure and legitimate, Francey said.
"Conditions as a whole are good," he added. "Security is stable; essential services improving. And with day-to-day freedoms of democracy recognized, a new normal is being embraced."
Iraqi soldiers and police have handled security in their own way, the colonel said. "It's not real pretty," he said. "They still have some weaknesses. We continue to work on their logistics, and simultaneously we're moving our provincial reconstruction teams around."
The U.S. military will continue to provide security for the teams, Francey said, but the progress may mean fewer U.S. troops will be needed in the province.
"I think we're moving to a point to where we can start downsizing in my area," he said. "I still think there [are] partnership requirements, but at a smaller scale." The brigade has a battalion covering an area that once needed a brigade, he noted.
Reconstruction efforts have led to improvements in the lives of the people of Wasit. "The results were a population within Wasit that started tasting freedoms that they had never tasted before," he said. "And they enjoy those freedoms."
Now, when undesirables – terrorists or just plain thugs – show up, the people don't want to return to the way it was, Francey said. "They are calling on the tip line, they're coming to the front gate, and they're saying, 'so-and-so is back. Follow me. I will lead you to them,'" he said. "It's exciting to watch it."
More needs to happen on the reconstruction front, Francey acknowledged. Some communities lack pure drinking water, and trash and sewage continue to be problems. "You see some of the projects ongoing," he said. "Do I think there are enough? No."
The colonel said he believes the Iraqi government can do more, and that he encourages officials to exert themselves.
"We saw some movement over the last three to four months," Francey said. "[I] don't know if it was tied as part of their electoral process, but we have seen quite a few projects over the last three or four months. Hopefully that will continue once we seat the new provincial governments as well."
The province has a fairly high unemployment rate, Francey said, and needs to put more young men to work. Agriculture is the main industry in the region, he said, and that has been decimated by 30 years of war.
"So I have a province full of farmers that can't farm right now, so they're unemployed," Francey said. "We need to turn around the agriculture within Wasit. And that is, again, one of the ongoing talking points whenever I get anybody visiting from Baghdad on the [Iraqi government] side."