By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 24, 2009 - Coalition and Iraqi forces have sacrificed greatly to build security and develop a democratic process in Iraq, and after nearly seven years, the hard work is paying off, a senior commander in southeastern Baghdad told American Forces Press Service. In an Aug. 21 telephone interview, Army Col. Timothy McGuire, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, noted that Jan. 1 ushered in the U.S.-Iraq security agreement that permitted U.S. forces to play only a supporting role in the security efforts there. And since U.S. combat forces officially moved out of Iraqi cities and towns on June 30 as part of that agreement, Iraqi soldiers and police truly have taken charge, he added.
"We're really watching success happen," McGuire said. "Throughout this fight, we've been asking Iraqi security forces to take the lead, and on 30 June, they clearly did. That's what we've been working on for the past six and a half years."
For the past two months, some 20,000 Iraqis -- soldiers, police and civilian security groups -- have been at the helm of the security responsibilities in southeastern Baghdad, just as other security forces are doing throughout the rest of the country. It's an opportunity the Iraqis have wanted for quite some time, the colonel said.
"They wanted to be in charge," he said. "They wanted to protect the people of Baghdad, and we're letting them."
McGuire's brigade arrived in Iraq in December, and through the transition, the U.S.-Iraqi partnership has become stronger, he said. Before June 30, his troops were conducting joint operations with their counterparts regularly, he noted, but now they don't even operate in the cities. The newfound independence also has given Iraqi forces more confidence, he added.
Unless formally asked to do so by Iraq's national government, U.S. forces no longer plan or execute combat operations in urban and populated areas; they serve only in an advisory and training role, McGuire said. U.S. forces do, however, provide "enabling" tasks -- such as engineering, aviation and logistical support -- that the Iraqis don't have, he said. But coalition security responsibilities have shifted to a behind-the-scenes effort.
"We spend a lot more time with troop-leading procedures and mission planning and providing intelligence," he said. "But during the actual conduct of the mission, it's Iraqi leaders in charge and Iraqi security forces out there interacting with the people."
He added that since June 30, Iraqi security forces have become much more receptive to coalition "advice and coaching," because "they realize they're the ones in the lead, and that they're the ones at risk."
Iraqi forces have expressed their desire to take charge in the rural regions as well, McGuire said, noting that his brigade works with local security forces along the city's rural southern belt. U.S. troops there still conduct combined search operations and raids with their Iraqi partners, but even there, they've taken a back seat to the Iraqis, he said.
The officers in charge of those missions outside of the cities are Iraqi, and Iraqi soldiers and police make up the bulk of the missions' manpower, McGuire explained. Partnership and assistance is the American troops' mission and priority.
"I think [success] really comes down to partnership and capacity building and working hand in hand with our counterparts," McGuire said. "[Iraqi security forces] are clearly in the lead, and we acknowledge that they have assumed the security responsibility in Baghdad. We are embracing every opportunity to work with them."
Even in the face of attacks reminiscent of the violence Iraqis saw in 2005 and 2006, security forces have shown their maturity and confidence, he said. Last week's series of bombings in Baghdad left an estimated 100 people dead and another 1,000-plus injured. It was Iraq's deadliest day this year. In the aftermath of the attacks, Iraqi officials and security leaders came together to learn from their mistakes.
"[Aug. 19] was a tragic day in Iraq, but the good news is our Iraqi counterparts came together to determine what steps they needed to take to ensure an event like that doesn't happen again," he said. "That's a positive development, and that's what professional militaries do."
Iraqi security forces still deal with some setbacks in logistics and intelligence-gathering, McGuire said, but they benefit from understanding their culture and knowing the Iraqis they protect. Although they don't have the technological capabilities of unmanned aerial systems, their ability to gain trust and acquire information from the population is an advantage coalition forces will never have, he said.
Iraqis security forces in southeastern Baghdad often are so confident in their abilities to locate insurgents that they frequently plan and conduct operations informing their U.S. counterparts only after the fact. On several occasions since June 30, Iraqi security forces have captured "high-value targets" McGuire and his troops didn't even know the Iraqis were pursuing, he added.
"We're really working hard to work ourselves out of a job," McGuire said. "We really want to empower, embolden and enable our Iraqi counterparts to do the job themselves."
Although McGuire wouldn't speculate on how much Iraqi forces actually need U.S. troops in Baghdad, he said the Iraqis are taking the necessary steps to one day fend for themselves. He predicted that within the next few years, Iraqis will be able to focus more on educational, economic, medical and other needs without fear of reprisal.
"I remain confident, but I'm going to make sure that while I'm here, I'm going to do everything within my power to set my counterparts up for success," he said. "I'm very proud of the gains that have been achieved, and we'll be tracking closely what takes place when we leave, because we want nothing but the best for the Iraqis."
McGuire is serving his second tour in Iraq and his fourth combat deployment overall since 2001. Many of the troopers in the brigade also are on their fourth and fifth deployment. Those who were in the brigade for its previous Iraq deployment in 2006 understand the fruits of their labor, he said. More than 70 members of the brigade were killed during that 15-month deployment.
Morale among his troops remains high to say the least, the colonel said, noting that even younger soldiers who may be serving their first deployment are motivated about the positive effect they're having in their roles as trainers and advisors. His troops understand that the sacrifices made during the brigade's previous deployment are paying off, he said.
"Our soldiers and leaders at all levels remain motivated and focused as we realize we're still helping ensure and solidify the hard-fought gains," he said. "From a man who's been over here before and sacrificed blood, sweat and tears, the investments of the past six and a half years are bearing fruit."