By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
MILWAUKEE , Aug. 31, 2010 – It is thanks to the blood, sweat and tears of American servicemembers that Iraq has the chance for political freedom, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the annual convention of the American Legion here today.
The secretary cautioned that much remains to be done in Iraq, but the people have the chance to move forward after 30 years of Saddam Hussein’s oppression.
Gates ticked off the major signs of progress. Despite recent al-Qaida attacks on Iraqi civilians the overall level of violence in the country remains at the lowest level since 2003. U.S. Forces Iraq has not launched an airstrike in more than six months.
“In an important victory against transnational terror, al-Qaida in Iraq has been largely cut from its masters abroad,” he said.
Today marks the last day of Operation Iraqi Freedom; the 50,000 American troops that remain in Iraq will now operate under Operation New Dawn. U.S. servicemembers will continue to advise and assist Iraqi security forces – now 660,000-strong – until all American troops leave Iraq at the end of next year. Since the height of the surge, about 84,000 American troops have redeployed out of the country.
The secretary is a realist about Iraq. “I am not saying that all is, or necessarily will be, well in Iraq,” he told the Legionnaires. “The most recent elections have yet to result in a coalition government. Sectarian tensions remain a fact of life. Al-Qaida in Iraq is beaten, but not gone.”
Americans should not celebrate prematurely, and no one should become complacent. “We still have a job to do and responsibilities there,” Gates said.
The secretary asked the Legionnaires to remember the sacrifices servicemembers have made. “Today, at the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 4,427 American servicemembers have died in Iraq – 3,502 of them killed in action; 34,268 have been wounded or injured,” he said. “The courage of these men and women, their determination, their sacrifice – and that of their families – along with the service and sacrifice of so many others in uniform, have made this day – this transition – possible.
“We must never forget,” he said.
Gates said the American Legion has been at the forefront of efforts to remember the troops and aiding those affected by the wars. He praised in particular the Legion’s Heroes to Hometowns program. The program aims to help wounded servicemembers ease back into civilian life.