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Early OIF Planner Sees 'Phenomenal' Progress Three Years Later

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 13, 2006 – Three years after Saddam Hussein's statue, along with his regime, was toppled in Baghdad, an Army planner who served there at the time said he's optimistic about Iraq's progress in forming its government, repairing its infrastructure and establishing its security forces.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Lt. Col. E.J. Degen works with 6th Iraqi Army Division before their validation exercise during his recent deployment to Iraq. About a month later, the Iraqi division assumed battlespace inside Baghdad. Courtesy photo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image)

Army Lt. Col. E.J. Degen brings unique insights into Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was chief of plans for U.S. 5th Corps, which established Combined Joint Task Force 7, after U.S. and coalition forces entered Iraq. The current Multinational Force Iraq and Multinational Corps Iraq replaced that task force in May 2004.

After he returned to the United States in July 2003, the Army commissioned Degen and two other officers to evaluate the war and write "On Point: The United States Army in Iraqi Freedom." The book, a compilation of 2,220 audio interviews, 1,500 video interviews, 236,000 documents and 79,000 photos, reviews the Army's performance during the first stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The 542-page study provides lessons learned for future operations, Degen said.

In early 2004, Degen returned for his second deployment to Iraq, where he validated training for the 6th Iraqi Army Division before it took control of battlespace in Baghdad.

Now back at the 3rd Infantry Division's Fort Stewart, Ga., headquarters, where he commands the 1st Battalion, 39th Field Artillery, Degen described the immense changes he's witnessed in Iraq during the past three years.

"I'm very positive about what we've done in Iraq," he said. "We've done a phenomenal job."

He recalls his first impressions of Baghdad: trash everywhere, not a child in sight and dilapidated or nonexistent sewage systems. "You could sense the despair in people's eyes," he said. "You saw the desperation."

Degen remembers the "instantaneous euphoria" that erupted as he and his troops entered Karbala, about 50 miles south of Baghdad, and the Iraqis realized that Saddam was no longer in power. "People were standing in the streets, hugging and cheering," he said.

But as exhilarating as it was, Degen said he and his troops quickly grasped "the mountainous task" before them, particularly in light of Iraq's neglected infrastructure systems.

Home from second deployment, which wrapped up in December, Degen said he's impressed that the same five pillars for rebuilding Iraq identified in the initial campaign plan are still being used today, and succeeding. These address the country's needs in terms of government, education, security, commerce and infrastructure.

Baghdad is a new city, cleared of trash and with sewer, water and electricity systems being built or restored, he said. Hospitals are up and running. Commerce is flourishing, and mom-and-pop businesses have popped up everywhere. Children run around in their school uniforms, reporting to classrooms where they no longer use textbooks that open with Saddam's picture and propaganda.

"It's just incredible," Degen said of the progress. He said he's impressed that the Iraqis are exhibiting "a lot of determination to fix their environment and make it better."

One of the biggest changes, one Degen worked with directly during his recent deployment, is in Iraq's security forces. "I never would have believed that they could have built up those forces that fast," he said. As they grow in number and capability, Iraq's army and police forces "are very open to our ideas and our concepts," he said. "They want to learn from us and be like us because of how good they are."

As the Iraqis build a noncommissioned officer corps, basing it on the U.S. model, "guys are standing up to lead," he said. "And I think that within the next few years, we'll see that the Iraqis will be standing on their own. But that's something that is going to take some time."

The insurgency in Iraq didn't exist during Degen's first deployment to Iraq, and he acknowledges that in many ways, it's made the U.S. mission there more dangerous now than three years ago. But after seeing how well members of Iraq's different sects are working together in the security forces and their shared interest in controlling the violence, he said he's optimistic about Iraq's future.

"You don't overcome 1,000 years of animosity and mistrust in three years. It takes a long time," Degen said. "Look how long it took us in Bosnia."

As Iraq builds its new government, it's still unclear what shape it will take, he said. "We can go in and enable democracy, but we can't tell them how to do their democracy," Degen said.

"I sense that the Iraqis are looking for their George Washington," a leader who can help bring together the population under a unified government that ensures everyone's rights, he said.

Ultimately, Degen hopes to see the Iraqis enjoying an environment most never dreamed of just three years ago under Saddam's regime. People will live in freedom and have control of their destiny, "and it will be something every kid can have, not just those who happen to be born in the Sunni Triangle," he said.

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Related Sites:
Iraqi Freedom Day Web Special

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