American Forces Press Service
April 1, 2009 - Last spring's Iraqi-planned and Iraqi-led military campaign that successfully subdued insurgents in and around Iraq's southern city of Basra was a turning point in the conflict, a senior U.S. officer posted in Iraq said today. Then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki decided in March 2008 to attack insurgents and criminals lodged in Basra, Multinational Corps Iraq "had its first opportunity to gain the initiative in the south," Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III told reporters at a Baghdad news conference.
"We didn't hesitate in partnering with the Iraqi security forces," Austin, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, recalled. "And while it was an Iraqi-conceived and an Iraqi-planned operation, we took the opportunity to provide our combat enablers through our military transition teams with the Iraqi units."
Maliki ordered the rapid deployment of thousands of Iraqi security forces to Basra to confront illegal militias and criminal elements said to be operating there. The U.S. military provided logistics, air and other support to the Iraqi campaign. After intense combat against the Iraqi forces, most of the insurgents in Basra eventually decided to opt out of further fighting.
Austin cited three reasons why the Basra operation "was a decisive point" for the future of all Iraq:
-- It was the first large-scale deployment of the Iraqi army by order of the prime minister;
-- It was a clear signal to all extremists and criminals, whether Sunni or Shiia, that they don't have a future in Iraq; and
-- The Iraqi government demonstrated that it is a government for all Iraqis.
If the Basra offensive had failed, Austin said, it would have led to a chain of events that "would have unraveled" the hard-fought gains made against insurgents in Iraq. Instead, the Iraqi military victory in Basra "became a real turning point for the country and for the Iraqi security forces," he said.
Today, things are looking up in Basra, Austin said, noting that violence there is at a six-year low. The local economy, he added, is improving, while the nearby port of Umm Qasr is enjoying revived business.
"And this progress is all possible by the defeat of the criminals and extremists that once dominated the south" of Iraq, Austin said.
U.S. forces involved in operations in Iraq's Jazeera Desert, which borders Syria, and in and around the city of Mosul in northern Iraq achieved "some absolutely remarkable impacts" on al-Qaida and other extremist networks, the general said. These actions "resulted in a steep reduction of high-profile attacks against the people of Mosul and in Baghdad," he said, and each foreign fighter removed from the scene likely prevented a terrorist suicide attack.
It was clear in 2008, Austin said, that long-term security in Iraq hinges on the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces. "We also knew that was important for us to further develop our partnership with the Iraqi security forces," he added.
Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces increasingly are taking on more responsibility, Austin said, as U.S. forces in Iraq have been reduced by 25 percent over the past year or so. And despite a smaller U.S. force structure, he added, security in Iraq "has continued to improve."
"And that is because of our strong partnership" with the Iraqi security forces, he said.
The 18th Airborne Corps' headquarters unit from Fort Bragg, N.C., has served as the headquarters for Multinational Corps Iraq for 14 months, Austin said. He and his troops are slated to return to Fort Bragg in a few weeks. The 700-member 18th Airborne Corps contingent will be replaced by the 1st Corps headquarters element based at Fort Lewis, Wash.