05 March 2008

Mullen Calls Security Progress in Iraq 'Undeniable'

Security progress in Iraq is undeniable, but it is fragile and must be sustained, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told reporters traveling with him to Iraq that the trip was a chance for him to see progress for himself, to talk with Iraqis of all stripes, and to interact with U.S. servicemembers bearing the heaviest burden.

"There is so much going in the right direction that is tied to better security," Mullen said. "The level of violence being down has allowed the Iraqis to focus on the development of their security forces as opposed to focusing on where the next bomb is going to go off."

The chairman walked through the Dora neighborhood of Rashid district March 1 and took a similar walk through the main market street in Hawija yesterday. During both "battlefield circulations," he spoke with Iraqi shoppers, shop owners and community leaders. He met Iraqi security forces and with representatives of concerned local citizens groups.

"You can see that security is dramatically improved, but the security environment is tenuous," the chairman said. "It is going to take a sustained period of time to make sure that security will strengthen itself."

The chairman noted progress in bringing Iraqi police forces up to speed. "I was here in October, and there was great concern about the development of the police," he said.

After a visit to a police academy in Kirkuk yesterday, and talks with U.S. officials, he said, he came away encouraged by the police progress.

"Probably the biggest take-away for me was how much we've done to improve the security environment (and) the opportunity that is there; and yet it is fragile, delicate and tenuous," he said.

He said people he spoke with talked about needing the central government to reach out to local and provincial governments. "They weren't vicious about it, but they do want that to happen," he said. "Iraqis pointed out to me on several occasions on the need for that and their concern that it hasn't taken place."

The chairman walked the streets to gather information for his assessment on the way the U.S. effort in Iraq should move forward. U.S. military and diplomatic leaders will provide their assessments of progress in Iraq to the president in April and will present him with their recommendations.

Mullen and the rest of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will examine the situation in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, but will also assess the situation globally.

"It is not my intent to make tactical recommendations on what we should do," he said. "Having an understanding of where we are on security, having and understanding of where we are in terms of political progress, having an understanding of where we are in terms of the economy -- it all feeds in (to the evaluation)," he said.

"As a result of this visit, I am more optimistic than when I got here," he said. "That's frankly why I come, because I worry about the assessments we all make in Washington from teleconferences.

"What I see on the ground is very, very positive, but it is fragile, and it is going to remain fragile," he continued. The United States must be committed for "a significant period of time" until the Iraqis can take the lead countrywide.

"There is not an exact date, I can't quantify it specifically, but there isn't anyone here who doesn't want the Iraqis to take control as soon as they can," he said. "The concern is that if they assume control too early and they are not prepared for it, it will flip back to the way it was, and it will flip pretty quickly."

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
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