By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 29, 2011 – American forces’ efforts in Iraq “have given the people of Iraq a huge gift” through the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of a democratic society, a senior U.S. commander said today.
“We have given them freedom and liberty that they've never known, and we have given them the potential to have a democracy in this part of the world … where it would be a unique institution,” Army Maj. Gen. David G. Perkins, commander of U.S. Division-North and the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division, told Pentagon reporters via video teleconference from his headquarters in Tikrit.
U.S. military forces are slated to depart Iraq by the end of the year. Iraq has experienced significant improvements, although some problems remain to be solved, the general said.
Operation Iraqi Freedom, launched in March 2003, ended the regime of the ruthless Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Iraqi Freedom transitioned to Operation New Dawn in September 2010, marking the shift from combat operations to training, equipping and assisting Iraqi forces. Perkins’ division has led those efforts in the northern provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diyala since last October.
The 4th was involved in the first troop rotation to Iraq and is now completing its fourth deployment, the general said, adding that every tour there has had unique aspects.
The advise, train and assist mission also has involved transitioning operations, operating areas and bases to Iraqi forces, Perkins said.
Those forces, he noted, now lead their own internal security operations and are focusing much of their training on the military’s traditional mission of defending against external threats.
Iraqi and Kurdish forces now share bilateral responsibility for 22 formerly trilateral checkpoints along disputed territory in northern Iraq, Perkins said, as U.S. forces have pulled back into an overwatch role.
No violence has occurred at any of those checkpoints since U.S. forces withdrew from daily presence, the general said, noting arbitration mechanisms are in place to manage any disputes, the general said.
“At the very senior level of this mechanism, we will have State Department people engaged as well as Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq people engaged, but it's at a much lower level as far as number of people than we had when I first got here,” Perkins said.
Iraqi forces also take the lead against al-Qaida activity in the north, which has long been a main operating and fund-raising area for the group as well as a primary entry point into the region for foreign fighters, he said.
“We've seen a dramatic drop-off in the foreign fighter flow coming into Iraq … [and] instead of foreign aid coming in large amounts, they're resorting to what I would call extortion, black marketing, robbery of jewelry stores, things like that,” Perkins said.
“We are now seeing intra-al-Qaida fighting and disputes [in] the organization itself about how money is distributed,” he added.
Perkins credited al-Qaida’s decline in Iraq to the capabilities and persistence of the country’s soldiers and police.
“They generally are on the pointy end of the spear here going after these folks,” Perkins said of the antiterrorism efforts conducted by Iraq’s security forces “And then when they do that, they are getting much better at getting their own internal intelligence, turning it around and going after the networks.”
The al-Qaida network in northern Iraq is not ineffective, but it has been “highly degraded,” the general said.
“We see now more vehicle-borne explosive devices that are parked and detonated versus being driven and detonated, which means they're having a hard time getting people who are true believers to actually be the suicide folks,” he said.
Perkins said Iranian-backed attacks in the north also have declined recently under pressure from Iraqi security forces.
“But, again, we know that capacity is there, so we keep those pressures on those networks,” he said, adding that historically, most Iranian-backed attacks happen in Baghdad and the southern part of Iraq.
Iraqi forces must be self-sustainable to maintain pressure on criminal and terrorist networks without U.S. military support, Perkins noted.
“From day one, our intent was to build a sustainable capability that on the last day, we can walk away, and then the day after that, it continues,” he said.
In training Iraqi forces, his troops are now focused on the areas of intelligence fusion and logistics, he added.
“We've paid additional attention to developing a logistics system, a supply system and also an ability for them to share intelligence not only within their army but between their police and border organizations … because, again, fusing that intelligence allows them to get after threats both internal and external,” the general said.
Perkins said his troops have spent much time putting together doctrinal and instructional manuals and getting them translated to Arabic.
“After we leave, again, there is something that they can build on,” he said. “We also videotaped and recorded … infantry movements, all the basic kind of things so they can take a very immature force, recruits, show them what right looks like and then move forward on it.”
Iraq’s defense capability will increase with its recently announced purchase of 18 F-16 fighters, the general said.
“I think the significant part is that they have made that commitment to get 18 [fighters] initially, which means they are now going to have a modern air force,” Perkins said. “They're going to have pilot training; they're going to have to have a maintenance program … and then adding aircraft after that is much easier.”
That sort of capability-building already has taken place in the Iraqi intelligence-gathering community, Perkins said.
“They weren't asking for their own [intelligence and surveillance] platforms because they didn't even know they had them,” he said. “And so once we told them that they had them, once we showed them how to ask for them, then that became self-sustaining because they generated a demand signal which then had to be met by their institution.”
Over the past year U.S. forces in northern Iraq have decreased from around 10,000 in 38 bases to about 5,000 in 14 locations, Perkins said.
“We have tried to do it in a very deliberate manner, in going over in a very deliberate way how they are going to conduct security,” he said.
“We've been very pleased, I think, with their ability to stand up and not only control the base and equipment, but keep security under control here in the north,” he said.
The United States has invested “a lot of treasure, both human and financial” in Iraq, the general said.
“Each day we hand more and more of the responsibility off to the Iraqis … [and] they are grabbing hold of and running with it,” he said.
Iraq’s leaders will determine how successful their country will ultimately be, Perkins said.
“It is up to the [Iraqi] political leadership to make this thing work and do the kind of tough work, selfless service, to make those hard decisions that are for the benefit of their country to make sure that this is a viable democracy,” he said.