By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
April 6, 2009 - The improved security and reduced violence in Iraq today is far different than the situation that existed there just a few years ago, a senior U.S. officer posted in Iraq said today. "This is my fourth deployment in Iraq, and I can tell you that the improvements that I have seen –- that I've personally seen -- have been astounding," Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Juan G. Ayala, commanding general of 2nd Marine Logistics Group, told reporters during a satellite-carried Pentagon news conference.
Ayala participated in the news conference from his unit's base at Camp al Taqaddum in western Iraq's Anbar province. His forward-deployed logistics unit of 4,000 sailors and Marines arrived in Iraq in mid-January. The logistics group's stateside home is Camp Lejeune, N.C.
The successful Iraq provincial elections witnessed in January, Ayala said, exemplify the "significant strides that have been made here in al Anbar province."
Yet, "things were different" during the 2005 Iraqi provincial elections, Ayala said. Voter turnout for that election was low, he recalled, and more than 300 attacks occurred on election day.
Fast-forward to today, Ayala said, and "you have the people of Iraq peacefully taking part in elections."
The mostly violence-free Iraqi elections in January were "a testament to Iraq, to the U.S. and the world, that the sacrifices of the Iraqi security forces and the coalition forces over the past six years have really made a difference," Ayala said.
In early 2006, Ayala said, he began one of his four Iraq tours of duty as a military advisor to officers and soldiers of the 1st Iraqi Army Division.
At that time, he recalled, the 1st Iraqi Division lacked the soldiers, adequate training and sufficient equipment required to fight the insurgency.
However, he said, the 1st and 7th Iraqi Army Divisions posted in Anbar province today display "a newfound confidence within the ranks" and unit cohesion.
In fact, Ayala said, the 1st Iraqi Army Division recently deployed a quick-reaction force to conduct anti-insurgent operations in Basra in southern Iraq.
"This was something unheard of a few years ago," Ayala said.
And, in early 2007, the streets and roads of Ramadi and Fallujah in western Iraq were "gauntlets of violence," he said, upon which coalition forces couldn't travel without the threat of insurgent attack.
"Today, we traverse these same roads and it is an entirely different scene," Ayala said. "There is a sense of normalcy amongst the people, commerce has picked up and more importantly, there's a constant presence of Iraqi security forces -- mainly police -- in the cities and in the streets."
The increased security and stability experienced in that area, he added, also has prompted an increase in tourism.
Yet, "the increased stability in the security situation is relatively new, and it still needs time to mature," Ayala said. Meanwhile, he said, the Iraqi security forces in the area can now focus on improving their capabilities.
Meanwhile, Ayala said his unit continues to provide logistics support to U.S. and coalition forces, while providing mentoring to Iraqi units within the region.
"Every embedded advisor team, whether they're advising the police or the [Iraqi] army, has a logistics expert within that team," Ayala explained. Those advisors, he added, mentor Iraqi police and soldiers on issues involving supply, maintenance, transportation, engineering, medical, bomb-disposal and other specialties.
"The Iraqi security forces are very competent now, operationally," Ayala said. "Where they really need support now is logistics. And, we're doing that now."
Iraqi soldiers also are honing their field first-aid skills, Ayala said, through basic combat lifesaving training provided by his advisors.
The 1st Iraqi Army Division stood up internal motor transport regiments in 2006, Ayala said, so that it could move its troops and distribute equipment and other supplies.
Those Iraqi army transportation units still have U.S. advisors, but they are maturing and are "getting better" every day, Ayala said.
Meanwhile, Ayala said, the Iraqis are now self-sufficient with regard to supplying their security forces with petroleum-based products such as gasoline and diesel fuel.
"Their Ministry of Oil, through their government, has allotted fuel for the Iraqi army and the Iraqi security forces," Ayala said.
By and large, the Iraqi security forces "are in the lead," said Ayala, noting they're now planning and conducting their own operations.
After focusing on counter-insurgency operations over the past two or three years, he said, the Iraqi security forces have demonstrated battlefield competence and are ready to improve their logistical skills.
"They're saying, 'Ok, what do we have to do now to self-sustain?'" Ayala said. "And, they're doing it with our mentoring and our assistance and our advising."
Asked by a reporter if further drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq might affect Marine forces under his command, Ayala replied that that decision is up to senior U.S. civilian and military leaders.
"Unit levels and unit strengths are determined by our national leadership," Ayala said. "I'm sure some units are going to be diverted.
"But, right now," he continued, "we still have a very vital mission, a very important mission here in Iraq, and the units that we have are the right units, the right number of units to complete the mission that we still have here."
Meanwhile, Ayala said, Iraq continues to enjoy improved security and reduced levels of violence.
"I think we're on track," he said.