Pre-election Calm Validates ‘Advise, Assist’ Mission
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 5, 2010 Two days before Iraq’s national parliamentary elections, the biggest impression for Army Col. Peter Newell is what his 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division, soldiers aren’t doing.
U.S. Army Col. Peter Newell, commander of the 1st Armored Division’s 4th Brigade, discusses election security with Brig. Gen. Ali Hameed of the 10th Iraqi Army Division during special-needs voting in Amarah, Iraq, March 4, 2010. The Iraqi general invited Newell to tour polling sites used by the Iraqi army. Newell's brigade is deployed from Fort Bliss, Texas, to advise and assist Iraqi security forces in Dhi Qar, Maysan and Muthanna provinces. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
They’ve been deployed to southeastern Iraq for 10 months, serving as the test bed for the “advise and assist” brigades that followed. Embedding with Iraqi security forces, Newell’s troops have focused not on combat operations, but on helping the Iraqi security forces build capability and leadership within their ranks.
Now, as thousands of Iraqis prepare to cast their ballots in the second legislative vote since Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, they’re seeing the fruits of their labors as the Iraqis take charge of election security.
“We are so far in the background, it is great,” Newell said during a telephone interview from his brigade tactical command post in Iraq’s Maysan province. “I can’t think of a better way to end a rotation.”
While the Iraqis are in control, Newell and his troops have worked for months to prepare them for the mission, and for others they will carry out independently after U.S. forces leave Iraq.
They embedded directly with the Iraqi units in their three-province area of operations, living, eating and sleeping as well as training with them. It’s built strong relationships between the two forces, personal as well as professional, that Newell said have speeded up the Iraqi security forces’ progress.
Recalling his experience during the 2005 Iraqi elections – when he said in some cases he had to force polling centers to open and election officials to do their jobs – Newell said he sees the upcoming election as a sign of just how far the Iraqis have come.
“They have done some great training, and we have gotten a lot of mileage out of the training for them, but they don’t necessarily need the Americans with them,” he said. “The Iraqis doing this are very competent … and very confident in their ability to secure the election.”
Newell’s task force worked shoulder to shoulder with the 10th Iraqi Army Division and provincial police and border enforcement brigade in the lead-up to the election. They helped the Iraqis make plans, solve problems, train quick-reaction forces and design mission rehearsals. In many cases, the U.S. troops observed those exercises and provided feedback.
In the days before the election, Newell reviewed security arrangements with his Iraqi counterparts. He also talked with them about contingency plans, should something, in his words, “go wrong.”
Newell conceded that southern Iraq is quieter than some areas of the country where insurgents have threatened violence in an attempt to disrupt the vote. Insurgent attacks in Baghdad yesterday and northern Baqouba yesterday have killed several dozen Iraqis.
If the voting turns violent in southern Iraq, two combined quick-reaction forces stand ready to respond. Newell assigned a handful of his troops to augment the Iraqi soldiers who make up the bulk of these forces.
“Right now, they are sitting on runways in Tallil and Amara, but they are strictly to be used if all else fails,” he said. “And I will tell you, they are the most bored people out there.”
Newell found a similar sense of quiet during the past three days as he joined his Iraqi counterparts to visit almost two dozen voting sites within Dhi Qar, Maysan and Muthanna provinces to check on final preparations.
Yesterday, the first day of voting for citizens who won’t be able to make it to the polls March 7, Newell tagged along with the 10th Iraqi Army Division commander to check on how initial voting was proceeding. “It was a very well-run, well-organized, calm procedure,” he said. “It was impressive to watch.”
His commanders, who rode around with their own counterparts yesterday, had similar reports. “There was absolutely nothing for us to do other that watch, which was great,” Newell said.
While the Iraqis may be largely prepared to go it alone, Newell said, he recognizes that they still need U.S. help, primarily aviation, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and other support.
Newell provided helicopters to help in ferrying Iraqi army and police leaders to election polling sites, particularly in the rural areas that would take hours to reach by ground.
Video feeds from U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles flying overhead are going directly to the Iraqi and U.S. headquarters on the ground. “We are side by side, looking at the same video feed,” Newell said. “And in many cases, one of my analysts is coaching an Iraqi analyst on what he is seeing. But in some cases, the Iraqi is coaching the American about what he is seeing.”
Newell said he sees this progress as validation of the success of the advise and assist mission in Iraq in building capacity within the Iraqi security forces.
“They’re now at the point where they are executing and just don’t need a whole lot of extra muscle,” he said.
Newell recognized the big role U.S. soldiers have played in helping the Iraqis progress. “They epitomize the best, most professional military any country has ever fielded in the history of our civilization,” he said. “These young men and women are so fantastically capable and flexible. I push back at anybody who says we can’t do something.
“I have yet to see them unable to do something.,” he continued. “As long as we provide them the right tools, the right training and the right guidance, they can do just about anything we could ever expect them to. [Our soldiers] have totally proven that.”