FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Multinational Corps-Iraq and XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg Commanding General, Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin said Fort Bragg troops remain dedicated to their mission in Iraq, despite the fact that their deployment will soon end.
Austin, who spoke via video teleconference Tuesday at the XVIII Airborne Corps headquarters said his Soldiers, although no longer the lead force, because Iraqi forces have assumed that role, continue to be optimistic about ensuring the safety of Iraqi citizens.
"You can be very proud of our Soldiers and Marines from North Carolina for the tremendous work that they do each and every day," he said. "I've been thoroughly impressed with their professionalism and their dedication to our mission. They continue to do great things. They make me proud and I'm sure you're proud of them as well."
Austin pointed out that MNC-I troops will play a critical role in ensuring that Iraqi citizens are able to enjoy democracy, as their provincial elections take place this week.
"This is a very important event for Iraq and it is something that we've all been preparing for since we arrived last year," he said. "I am very confident we've made the right preparations and the Iraqis will do a great job in providing security for the elections."
Iraq's first provincial elections took place in 2005. During that time, many citizens chose not to participate in the voting process out of fear of sectarian violence. Austin said he expects a record number of voters, now that the Iraqi army has proven itself as a capable security force.
"Since those elections four years ago, the people have realized that their voice can truly be heard through the election process," he explained. "So this time around we expect the elections to have record turnout.
"Conducting these elections would not have been possible without the security successes that we've achieved recently," Austin continued. "We've made huge strides in security and now we're trending toward a sustained low level of violence. In fact, the accomplishments have been quite remarkable."
He pointed out that within the past 18 months, the number of sectarian violence attacks on Iraqi citizens has decreased from more than 1,500 per week to less than 100 per week. Attacks in the city of Baghdad, which is home to about 6 million people, have decreased to about three per day, Austin said.
He said that fact is even more impressive when you consider that it has been achieved with less troops than when his command arrived in Iraq.
"We're actually doing more with less," said Austin. "We continue to experience progress, even after we've reduced our force structure from 20 brigade combat teams to 14 brigade combat teams. And with the departure of some of our coalition partners, we're obliged to control 25 percent more battle space than we were controlling a year ago."
Austin said despite seeing a reduction in violence, corps troops are careful not to celebrate as they still have a lot of work to do before redeploying in the spring.
"We need to continue to improve the capabilities and the professionalism of the Iraqi security forces while we partner with them under the new security agreement," Austin explained. "We need to continue to pursue those who do not want Iraq to succeed."
He said his Soldiers have accepted the responsibility of ensuring the success of Iraq and are focusing on their mission instead of their return to Fort Bragg.
"Our priority through all of this remains the same priority that we had the day that we arrived, and that is the securing the Iraqi people," he said.
Austin praised his troops for embracing their new role and remaining focused on that mission.
"Our troops are doing extremely well," he said. "You won't find many, if any, troops that belong to our corps or in the entire effort over here who are walking around with their head down and complaining about being tired," he pointed out. "Our troops are purposed on continuing to do the right things to finish the job and finish on terms that are favorable to the coalition and specifically, to the United States of America.
"If you talk to a trooper from the XVIII Airborne Corps today, most of them would say, 'I only have this many days to get these things done,'" Austin continued. "Rather than saying, 'I can't wait to leave.' They are focused on finishing the job before they leave."
Austin also extended his appreciation to the Family members at Fort Bragg, who have provided invaluable support to their deployed Soldiers.
"I'd like to say thank you," he said. "Thanks for your hard work, thanks for your commitment and for your sacrifices. We all know that we could not be us without (the Family members). We are focused on what we're doing and we are allowed to do that because we have such tremendous Family members that make unbelievable sacrifices."
He pointed out that some of the Soldiers and Families are on their third and fourth tour but they remain supportive and committed.
"It truly is unbelievable," Austin said. "Our Families have matured as well. They know how to take care of themselves as a group, much better than when we started this thing. Our services have matured in terms of their focus of taking care of the Families and their abilities to provide services to the Families. So I think, as a group, all of us have come quite a ways since March 2003."
Austin said his command is truly grateful to the entire community for its support to the XVIII Abn. Corps.
"To the Fayetteville community, let me offer a word of thanks to all of you and what you do in support of your troops on a daily basis," he said. "Unbelievable sacrifices on your part. It is clear to us that you're supportive, that you're committed and that makes us work and fight a little bit harder."