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Official Notes Gradual Progress in Baghdad

By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 30, 2007 – While early indicators on the Baghdad troop surge appear positive, coalition officials “are looking at this in a very patient fashion,” a senior military official in Baghdad said yesterday.

Navy Rear Adm. Mark Fox, communications director for Multinational Force Iraq, told online journalists that U.S. commanders will not rush to judgment on potential trends in Iraq’s security situation before the entire U.S. surge force is on the ground.

Fox noted about half of the 21,500 U.S. combat troops requested for the surge are currently in place, with the remainder expected by early June. He said an additional 7,000 troops would operate in a support role.

The Iraqi-led operation -- “Fardh al-Qanoon” in Arabic and “Enforcing the Law” in English -- has resulted in a substantial reduction in the numbers of kidnappings and murders in Baghdad over the last six weeks, Fox said. But the number of car bombs and some high-visibility attacks in Baghdad proper remains high, he acknowledged.

Recent vehicle-bomb attacks in Anbar province and the city of Tal Afar have incurred a high Iraqi civilian death toll, but thanks to the “effectiveness of a more rigorous checkpoint regimen,” many vehicle bombs are actually stopped before detonation, Fox said.

In the Iraqi capital, he said, neighborhoods overall appear to be benefiting from a sustained presence of U.S. and Iraqi security forces. Fox cited “significant changes” in terms of how the current operation is faring over past efforts to stabilize Baghdad.

During earlier attempts to improve security, the admiral said, joint security forces would clear city neighborhoods only to see insurgents flow back in after the forces moved on. But under the new strategy laid out by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, “any neighborhood that we operate and clear, we retain,” Fox said.

The sustained presence is a function of a network of 28 joint security stations and 22 combat outposts in place throughout Baghdad, Fox said. The facilities house U.S. troops, Iraqi soldiers and Iraqi police, in various combinations of those forces. A total of about 70 such stations is slated for Baghdad, the admiral said, with at least one joint security station already in place in each of the city’s 10 districts, including Sadr City.

The effect of embedding soldiers into the Iraqi neighborhoods, Fox said, is that forces are in place “24 hours a day, looking down the street, patrolling.”

Having Iraqi forces in the mix means units have the “native skills and cultural awareness” needed to more effectively gauge the security situation in a neighborhood, the admiral noted.

“The people are truly the center of gravity in a counterinsurgency,” Fox said. The current plan is aimed at winning their trust and support by demonstrating a commitment to neighborhoods, he explained, instead of “commuting to the fight” from large, removed forward operating bases, as happened in the past.

Another element of the strategy, Fox said, is to place a more intense focus on economic recovery, basic services and quality of life within the capital.

“Our metric for success really is the security that the people of Baghdad feel in terms of being able to live their lives and so forth” with a sense of normalcy, he explained.

It would be premature to seek to measure progress against that objective at this time, Fox reiterated.

“It’s going to take us months, not days or weeks, for us actually to see the results” or assess how the plan is going, he said.

Fox displayed a similar reticence in evaluating progress on the political front. While suggesting there did not yet appear to be any significant shifts toward unity within the Iraqi government, he expressed strong support for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s increasing efforts to deliver uniform justice across sects.

“The man is growing, in my view,” Fox said. “He is absolutely steadfast and unwavering in his approach to this in terms of demanding an evenhanded and nonsectarian administration of the rule of law.”

Maliki’s work is running up against “a war between extremists,” Fox said. He blamed radical elements on both sides of the political spectrum for prolonging bloodshed and encouraging sectarian divisions.

Fox explained that rogue elements of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia are waging war against Sunni extremists from al Qaeda in Iraq, treating “moderate Shia and moderate Sunnis as the battleground.” Both groups will even attack moderates from within their own sect if it prolongs the conflict, Fox said.

Against this backdrop, the role of U.S. forces is to provide security and room for Iraq’s government and institutions to grow, Fox explained.

Addressing criticism of the Iraqi national assembly’s pace in tackling key legislation, the admiral drew a comparison to the U.S. legislative process.

“This government is less than a year old,” he said. Expecting it to build a consensus on issues such as de-Baathification and hydrocarbons in such a short time would be equivalent to the U.S. Congress “tackling health care and statehood for Washington, D.C., in one congressional session.”

The pace in the Middle East is fundamentally different from that in the West, Fox said. “It’s clear that the Washington clock and the London clock (are) ticking faster than the Baghdad clock.”

Meanwhile, the admiral explained, despite a raging political debate in the United States over the timing and execution of the war, U.S. soldiers will continue their efforts to stabilize Baghdad and the surrounding country.

U.S. troops understand the dialogue at home “doesn’t change our mission” of implementing the surge and rebuilding neighborhoods, Fox said. “Until that mission is redefined or changed, then that’s what we’re focused on.”

(Tim Kilbride is assigned to New Media, American Forces Information Service.)

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