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4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division
TIKRIT, Iraq – 03.15.2010 On March 7, the people of Iraq made a decisive and defiant historic stand. They flocked to the polls in record numbers that would shame established western democracies. The 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division from Fort Riley, Kan., was there to help, observe, and be a part of that historic moment.
The 4th Brigade Combat Team along with its partnered U.S. State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team is stationed in Salah Ad Din province in northern Iraq with the mission to advise and assist the government and security forces of the province. Salah Ad Din is a large province about the size of New Jersey situated north of Baghdad with the Tigris River running its length. The population is nearly two million, and is predominately (more than 90%) Sunni Arab. Salah Ad Din is the tribal home of former dictator Saddam Hussein with the key cities of Tikrit, Samarra, Bayji, Balad, Tuz and Dujayl.
Seventy-three percent of the more than 600,000 registered voters in the province turned up at the polls on March 7th in defiance of threats of violence by violent extremists and delivered a very clear and decisive message to terrorists, the world, and to each other. They embraced national unity, the democratic political process, and the rule of law. They rejected violence, exclusion and extremism. Most importantly, they demonstrated that they have faith and confidence in their security forces and no longer fear or support the extremists. They made it clear that the people would decide their destiny and the destiny of their nation – peacefully, civilly, and politically. The effect was decisive. Only the U.S. state of Maine had a higher voter turn-out in the 2008 Presidential election – and they did not have people threatening to kill them if they attempted to vote!
This did not happen overnight. Many things have occurred to enable this positive historical event since the country spiraled into an orgy of violence in 2005/2006. The surge certainly provided the needed US combat power on the ground to enable success. The Iraqi security forces have continued to grow in strength and professionalism since then. The Sunni "Awakening," or Sahwa was pivotal in reversing the cycle of violence. Also, the people themselves grew weary of the violence and began to support the security forces and their own "Sons of Iraq" as security, governance, rule of law, and economic conditions began to improve. The Security Agreement between the US and Iraq coming into effect, Jan. 1, 2009, followed by the "out of the cities" directive of 30 June induced the government and security forces of Iraq to "step up to the plate" and demonstrate to their people they were up to the task of governing and protecting. Finally, the Sunni leaders in Salah Ad Din were acutely aware of the absolute folly of boycotting the elections in 2005 and worked diligently to participate in the process and influence their people to vote.
For the past two years the U.S. forces in Salah Ad Din have been advising and assisting our Iraqi government and security force partners. We assumed a supporting role with the Iraqis very clearly in the lead. We have also approached the problem unconventionally by relegating operations to kill and capture terrorists and violent extremists to a secondary and supporting effort. Conversely, we focused on addressing the conditions that create terrorists and extremists and those who support them as our main effort. Killing and capturing bad guys is important, but preventing more from taking their place as you remove them from the battlefield is more important. Essentially, we focused our energy and resources on enabling stability as the main effort, while addressing the drivers of instability as a supporting and subordinate effort. As we framed the problem to obtain a better understanding of the environment and what it would take to win, we realized that in order to achieve enduring security there must be rule of law, adequate essential services, an improving economy, social well-being, and credible and effective security forces. The results were decisive in setting conditions for the elections, March 7.
The enemy lost their ability to effectively influence the population, lost their support and lost the ability to operate among them as protection and concealment from Iraqi and US forces. Nine of ten arrests or interdictions of terrorists and their supplies and munitions by the Iraqi police and Army in Salah Ad Din are enabled by tips from locals. More the 90% of the successful kill and capture operations conducted in the province are by Iraqi security forces acting alone. Violent extremists and terrorists no longer pose an existential threat. They are dangerous but are no longer able to affect the destiny of Salah Ad Din. There have been other positive indicators as well.
The explosion in the amount of new businesses and homes under construction throughout Salah Ad Din serves as a tangible sign of a secure environment and improving economy. The Iraqi people have confidence in the security, government, and economy to invest their money to build new homes and businesses. Markets are full of exotic fruits and vegetables that are affordable and abundant. These items (such as bananas) come from Iran, Syria, Turkey and Jordan and their ubiquitous presence is evidence of local and business confidence in the security and the economy of SaD. The availability of luxury items and services present another indicator. The towns and cities in SaD are marked by plentiful car wash businesses that are always very busy. This service is a luxury of a secure environment for people who have disposable income to spend on cleaning their cars. A final recent indicator of security and economic growth is the significant presence of landscaping flowers and bushes filling stalls in the markets. These are not fruit or vegetable producing bushes and trees which serve a functional purpose, but purely decorative luxuries. All of these indicators are evidence that the people are confident in a secure and prosperous future.
The elections were undeniably an Iraqi show. We participated in the planning and preparation for security, offered advice and expertise, provided equipment and materials for enhancing the physical security of polling sites, and provided intelligence and communications support. On the 7th of March, our forces were ready to react in support of the Iraqi security forces should they need us. We were ready but out of sight. Wonderfully, they never needed us to act. The only US forces moving about Salah Ad Din on Election Day were those tasked with escorting international observer teams to the polling sites. The two week period preceding the elections were the lowest in violence in the province since 2003. Although there were several attempts by enemy forces to disrupt the elections, March 7, they were largely ineffective – resulting in only three slightly injured people.
Nearly 75% of the registered voters of the province got out and voted, and made history. Their message was clear and its effect decisive. It was electrifying and deeply rewarding to witness and participate in this momentous event. After seven years of hard work and sacrifice by Americans and Iraqis it appears that Iraq has turned a corner in its history and is headed in the right direction. We are all intensely proud and honored that we were able to contribute to and participate in this profound piece of history.