By Ian Graham
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity
April 23, 2010 - The times are changing in Iraq, and they're changing quickly. While American troops draw down and their mission comes to an end, the Iraqi government and U.S. State Department are preparing to take the reins on their respective roles in Iraq's future.
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza, spokesman for U.S. Forces-Iraq, joined journalists on a DoDLive Bloggers roundtable to answer questions and clarify the position of the U.S. military during its transition out of Iraq.
"Iraq is in a period of transition ... we're in a period of transition ... the government is in a period of transition," Lanza said. "We understand that the security environment is changing. Violence is as low as we've seen since 2004."
Lanza added that Iraq now is 85 percent more secure than it was in 2007 at the peak of the "surge" of 20,000 additional U.S. troops that helped to dampen insurgent-committed violence in Baghdad and Al Anbar province.
Currently, the majority of combat operations in Iraq are led by Iraqi forces, with American troops acting in an advisory support role. Lanza said Iraqi security forces have "grown and matured" and are conducting very sophisticated missions against al-Qaida near Tikrit.
"We continue the strategic partnership with them to increase their capacity, but more importantly to make sure that we develop them into a professional force capable of providing security for the Iraqi people," Lanza said. "We have seen their capability increase, and with that we maintain our posture for our responsible drawdown."
The current strategy calls for all but 50,000 U.S. troops to leave Iraq by September of this year; the remaining troops will be moving from a combat mission to a sustainment and stability mission in partnership the Iraqi government in August.
"We continue to work with the embassies, agencies and other elements here of the U.S. government, and also of other governments and [non-governmental organizations], in order to facilitate the strategic framework agreement in the future -- more importantly, to develop Iraq and their capabilities into a secure, stable and sovereign nation," Lanza said.
Though news reports still are peppered fairly regularly with stories about attacks or fighting breaking out in Iraq, Lanza says the security situation has improved vastly over the past few years. He added that the attacks, some of which target mosques, were likely meant to incite sectarian violence, and in that regard, they've been unsuccessful.
"While there have been significant challenges, and sometimes we have had these attacks and spikes in civilian casualties, I would acknowledge that if you look at it in the context of overall security, we are still on a much better road and a better way ahead than we have in the past few years," Lanza said.
Following the recent reported killing of two top al-Qaida-in-Iraq leaders, Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, the insurgent group is in a state of turmoil. Attacks are less successful, less sophisticated, and Iraqi security forces are proving to be a strong adversary.
"There's been tremendous pressure put on the al-Qaida network in the past few years, to the point that al-Qaida has fractured into three different groups," Lanza said.
Opportunists will follow and work with al-Qaida, in essence, to make a quick buck, Lanza said. Some people simply see the terrorist group as a source of income. Nationalists who want to see a regime change in Iraq look to al-Qaida and other insurgent groups as revolutionary entities. Idealogues, the true believers, still exist, but in fewer numbers than before, Lanza said.
"Iraq does continue to move forward, there will continue to be challenges," he said. "As our mission continues, it's our goal and our desire to continue to build capability and capacity of the ISF ... we want to ensure that the conditions are set here for a long-term relationship here between the U.S. and Iraq."