By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
BAGHDAD – Arriving in this city had both familiar and unfamiliar aspects for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff today.
On one hand Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey arrived in a city he knows well, having commanded the 1st Armored Division here in 2003 and 2004, and as the commander of the Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq from 2005 to 2007.
But Baghdad also is a changed city. Many of the scars of war are gone now, and today, tens of thousands of Iraqis peacefully celebrated Eid al Fitr – the end of Ramadan – in areas where T-wall barriers once stood.
In a symbol of the changed state of Iraq and its evolved relationship with the United States, Dempsey had to get his passport stamped by Iraqi customs officials upon his arrival. And, no longer a commander in a combat zone, the chairman ditched his once familiar camouflage for his class B dress uniform for meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and army Gen. Zebari Babakir, Iraq’s chief of defense.
Dempsey said he felt a certain satisfaction arriving back in Baghdad. “Flying over, there certainly seemed to be a sense of what we call normalcy,” he told reporters traveling with him. “Are there still challenges, problems? Of course there are. But the Iraqis appear to be on a good path.”
The chairman met with Maliki for 90 minutes. The two men had worked together when Dempsey commanded the transition effort. “We spent the first 30 minutes reminiscing about our time together, the tough times and what’s ahead,” he said. “The way we find our way forward in difficult times is through our relationships.”
Dempsey also spoke with Maliki and Babakir about the current effort to equip and train Iraqi security forces via the Office of Security Cooperation Iraq. More than 225 U.S. troops, seven Defense Department civilians, 530 security assistance team members and more than 4,000 contracted personnel are in the office at the Iraqi government’s invitation.
Iraqi leaders told the chairman they are generally pleased with the efforts of the office. But, Dempsey said, all sides – including the U.S. Army chief of the office at the American embassy, Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen – are frustrated by delays in some aspects of the foreign military sales program.
The program to equip the Iraqi security forces runs to $12.7 billion this year. The lion’s share comes from the Iraqi government and about $1.5 billion comes from the United States.
The leaders also discussed in general terms how Syria could evolve. The Iraqi prime minister is deeply concerned about Syria breaking up along ethnic or religious lines, Dempsey said. He is particularly worried about these divisions spilling over the border to Iraq where there are many of the same divisions.
“At the same time, there’s also the opportunity for Iraq to maybe be the dam against that flood,” Dempsey said.
Maliki’s sense is that the Syrian example is so stark and dire for the region that it might be a reason to galvanize Iraq to pull together, the chairman said.
“Now it may have the exact opposite, too,” he said. “But there’s an opportunity there and my report is that he sees it. I sensed that he understands he can play a positive role in the region.”
Maliki heads a democratically elected government, and as such, Iraq can become the major leader in the region as other states look to develop democracy in wake of the Arab Spring, Dempsey said. If Iraq can help other nations in the region, “I think Maliki could be historic,” he said.
The relationship between Iraq and the United States is improving because U.S. officials did what they said they would do, the chairman said. When the United States and Iraq negotiated the agreement for U.S. troops to leave Iraq in December, many Iraqis believed it wouldn’t happen, he said.
But the U.S. government proved good to its word, and that has made the relationship easier, Dempsey said. “We scaled our physical presence way down, while not scaling down our commitment to the nation,” he said. “I don’t know if they believed that a year or two ago.”
The leaders also discussed aspects of the military-to-military relationship – bilateral exercises, education, equipment and the like -- as they would with leaders of any other country, Dempsey said.
“We are having conversations as two sovereign nations about interests,” he said. “And that’s what’s important.”