A month into his third tour in Iraq, the commander of Multinational Force West said today he's amazed by vast improvements across Anbar province, with a sharp drop in violence and continued progress among Iraqi security forces.
"It's stunning to me how low (violence levels) are," Marine Maj. Gen. John F. Kelly told Pentagon reporters from a videoconference center in Baghdad.
"When I left here three years ago, you could not go into the cities -- Fallujah, Ramadi, places like that -- without a rifle company of Marines, and it was a gunfight going in and a gunfight going out," Kelly said.
It was impossible to make the 40-mile drive between Ramadi and Fallujah without seeing four or five improvised explosive devices or their results, he added.
Three years later, gunfire is a rare sound in the region, except on Thursday nights when Iraqis hold wedding celebrations, Kelly said.
Al Qaeda has been beaten back in the once-restive region to the point that its operatives have gone underground or fled to other parts of Iraq, he said.
But Kelly said he recognizes that the threat remains and that al Qaeda hasn't given up. "They're down, but they're not out," he said.
"It's stunning to me where we are on this, but it is not over yet, in terms of violence," he said. "We have to be vigilant, because it's not quite won yet."
Terrorists have changed tactics, going after Iraqi sheiks, police officials and civil leaders, rather than Americans, Kelly said. Suicide vests have become a weapon of choice, with nearly a dozen such attacks during the last month. And some signs point to plans to launch "bigger events that catch the attention of the world through the media," he said.
As offensive operations flush al Qaeda out of other Iraqi provinces, Kelly said, he recognizes that terrorists are likely to return to Anbar province, a region they know.
If they do, Kelly said, the situation they'll confront will be far different from what they left. The Iraqi people have become partners in cracking down on terrorists, reporting their activities and whereabouts, he said.
Iraqi security forces have made strong headway, and the 1st and 7th Iraqi army divisions operating in Anbar are among the best. "I probably sound like a proud parent here, but they are two very, very good divisions relative to the overall Iraqi army," Kelly said.
The United States made a tremendous investment to make them that good, embedding large, seasoned Army and Marine Corps training teams with the Iraqis, he said. "They live with the Iraqis 24/7, fight with them, eat with them, shower with them. It's an around-the-clock event for them," Kelly said.
The U.S. also invested heavily in the quality of its training teams, staffing them with experienced senior noncommissioned officers and officers, he said. "These are all first-round draft choices," Kelly said.
As a result, the Iraqis are not only partners in nearly all coalition missions, but are carrying out many on their own, he said.
The Iraqi police have made similar progress, with 23,000 on board and another 1,000 authorized. Kelly said he hopes to see that number boosted to 30,000, "because the police have really come on strong and given us an advantage out there."
Police transition teams are helping the Iraqi police the same way military transition teams are helping the Iraqi army, he said.
With security improvements continuing, the coalition in Anbar is working hand in hand with provincial reconstruction teams to promote development, Kelly said. The priorities are electricity, "a constant;" clean water, "a relatively good-news story;" jobs; and agricultural development, he said.
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