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The View from Here: October

I am sure everyone has heard about the two clocks. The Baghdad clock that we needed to speed up and the Washington clock that could actually have been a stopwatch to slow down. From my vantage point and hearing the words from back home, it appears that time has been added to the Washington clock to on — the outside edge till 2013 — based this on the candidates that are in the hunt for the presidency. It was amazing to hear and see the change from just prior to the testimony of “get out of Iraq now” to hearing that we now have up to the end of the first term of whoever becomes President. That is a huge shift in the discussion no matter how you slice it.

The last two trips I made around the battlefields, one within 30 kilometers of Iran to Forward Operating Base Caldwell to see the 5th Squadron, 73rd Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division who are just getting read to leave soon to head back to Fort Bragg, and a unit from the 2nd Infantry Division Stryker Brigade that is operating in Diyala that we say in a small village of Jiddiah. Both gave me some optimism on how things are going as well as some concerns. Here it is never just one or the other.

For the areas near Iran, there is still a hard fight and a lot of hard work ahead. We are dealing with a dynamic of tribal issues where the tribes or members of the tribes move back and forth across the border that they do not recognize exists. They have lived this way for longer than there has been a border and the tribe has members on both sides as well as family members on both sides. Throw in the issues of trading and commerce and you have a unique dynamic to contend with. In addition, some of this is smuggling activities, which have gone on there since before history was first written. Add to that the digging up old munitions from the Iran-Iraq war and selling those munitions to insurgents/terrorists and the problems become more complex. This isn’t necessarily the tribes choosing sides: like the Corleones would have said, it’s only business.

There are literally tons of mines, mortars, small arms ammunition, etc. buried out there. We are doing what we can to find the caches, but there are a lot. Together, the Iraqi Security Force, the tribal engagements folks as well as our units in the field are working these issues to bring about a better solution, but it will take time.

A lot of fantastic troopers in the unit. It isn’t every day that you get to see four Bronze Star’s for Valor and two Army Commendation Medals for Valor pinned on to a great group of deserving troops. It was a great sight to see and hear the actions for which they were awarded.

The unit from the 82nd moved out there about six to eight months ago, before which there had not been any coalition presence in the area for over a year or more. Instead of going to the Forward Operating Base and work out of there, they moved directly into the field to start work and in fact, started major combat operations very quickly, facing al Qaeda-Iraq as well as other extremist elements. On top of that, they had to learn the area and gain their own initial intelligence operations again since there had not been any of our forces out there for a while. In one operation, they called for and dropped a total of 33 2000lbs bombs in a fight that lasted about four days. That is probably more than a lot of units dropped on the fight to Baghdad at the onset of operations in 2003.

They have made great inroads to the local communities, working with the tribes and local Iraqi Police, but will have to say that the unit replacing them from the 101st Airborne Division has their work cut out for them.

Last Friday we went out to a small village of Jiddiah, between Taji and Baqubah which is north of Baghdad. It is in the Diyala province for those that are familiar with the area. This is the one you might have seen on ABC World News on that Friday with a report on General Petraeus’ comments on local security and the campaign-like description used to describe his battlefield trip. We spent about 90 minutes walking around the village, seeing who was around and talking to the locals. We were not hard to miss since our Blackhawks landed on the road in the middle of the village. They knew we were there and of course were curious.

The local sheikhs and the others living there for the most part told us that security is better and in fact, they can now travel back and forth between their and Baqubah for food which was very difficult before. The food distribution system was working there from the central and provincial governments and in fact, one sheikh told us that there was excess food there.

The main problems they talked about were the usual: not enough electricity and water, road work needs to be done. Those are real problems. But this time, they were happy with the local police. This is a mixed town of Shi’a and Sunni. The local police were about 2/3rd Shi’a and 1/3 Sunni which is about the mix of the town. A mixed area that seems to be working, which in some respect contradicts a lot of the critics that say they don’t work and the ethnic cleansing, is out of control.

There is no doubt that al-Qaeda-Iraq is off-balance due to our operations, the targeting of their networks and leaders, their finances, the increase of effectiveness of the Iraqi Security Forces, and the Sunni’s turning against them and helping to provide local security. Right now we are in the pursuit mode going after them. That does tend to give us some advantages and places them at a disadvantage that we will always look to exploit. We cannot afford to let up on them and allow them a chance to regain any momentum.

Now, don’t think that we have won because we have not. They may be off-balance, but they are not out of it yet. They can still pack a hefty punch and we do see it in some of the attacks and we saw a mini-surge during the last week of Ramadan. They are fully capable of fighting back, but not nearly at the levels we have seen in the past.

These days, and not just my view, they do more damage psychologically than they do physically. Even though the attacks can cause significant damage, the psychological damage and perception damage by grabbing the headlines and the images on TV are by far worse. They continue to try to give the perception that they are winning each time that happens and that is nothing more than a false perception.

The tribal engagements that are happening in Anbar, Diyala, Arab Jabour, the rest of the belts around Baghdad and other locations throughout Iraq is helping to foster local reconciliation. Grassroots support and work is what is happening. In some areas of course it is working better as all have heard about Anbar. That is the jewel in the crown right now, but it is bigger than that already. In Baghdad it is more neighborhood-focused. It has moved enough in the right direction that even the NY Times has noticed that the Shi’a-predominant neighborhoods are starting to reject the Shi’a militias which is a huge step forward. They are starting to recognize them for what they are; thugs, criminals, etc. Not their saviors. I hope this trend continues.

On of the big differences and perhaps in some respect the most important difference between now and a year ago is the fact that this time we have been able to clear the safe havens that al-Qaeda-Iraq and others have been using. Not completely yet, but so much more than before.

There is still Iranian support to the Shi’a militias. The Iranians have pledged to the Iraqi government to stop, but we are still in the “wait and see” mode. What they have been providing via the Quds force includes funding, training, equipping with such things as the 240 mm rockets, EFPs, advanced shoulder-fired surface to air missiles, and the more advanced Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG-29s). In some cases, they (the Quds force) have directed operations against the Coalition. All of this has been reported to the media, but it is hit or miss at best at times how much makes it out.

Many of the critics out there tend to think we are making this up, but there is just too much hard evidence to think of it in any other terms.

As I indicated a little earlier, a shift has been occurring that the NY Times reported. The Shi’a neighborhoods (some, not all yet) are starting to see the extremist elements as well as the regular Shi’a militia (JAM) as nothing but criminals. Once that bow wave starts, it won’t be stopped and we will see a huge shift in not only the security if the areas, but the politics of the situation as well. We have been saying this for a while, but know full well that until the media see it for themselves, it just isn’t happening. They found it on their own.

One of the biggest changes in the last six months or so has been the local security forces and the impact that they are having. They are doing great work. It takes the local population to secure their local area. They can provide better security than the Army and us. They know their town, villages, and cities better than we ever could and better than importing Iraqi Army into the towns that they do not know. The local security (and these are not militias) are linked into the Central government. The government provides their salary, their equipment, their direction and eventually, if the locals want, have a chance to attend the police academy or perhaps the Army. They know immediately when something isn’t right and at a minimum, they can let the Iraqi police, Army or us know about it.

In Fallujah since November 2004, the Coalition and the Iraqi Army have been the security for that area. Until fairly recently, we could not get the local men to volunteer to join the Iraqi police. That changed. Now there are 10 precincts that have been turned over to the local police in Fallujah and the Iraqi Army has moved out to conduct operations in other locations,. We are maintaining a small unit presence with the police there in a partnering mode. We go from Leading, to Partnering, to Tactical Overwatch, Operational Overwatch and then Strategic Overwatch. It will take time, but it has started.

Overall, we’re still making progress. It isn’t always apparent that progress is being made from those looking back this direction, but rest assured it is.

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Written By

Col. Steve Boylan is a US Army colonel currently serving in Iraq.

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