As the XVIII Airborne Corps prepares to redeploy to Fort Bragg, N.C., Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, Multi-National Corps - Iraq's commanding general, highlighted several factors that contributed to the year's progress throughout Iraq, while speaking by satellite to the Pentagon press corps Mar. 9.
The Corps had benefited from an improving security situation when it arrived in February 2008, Austin said. Brigades added during the combat surge had reduced attacks to below 400 per week nationwide, down from a peak of about 1,500.
"We knew that coming in, our primary job was to build upon these security gains and to continue to protect the population, all while working to defeat al-Qaeda in the north and expand our operations in the south," Austin said.
Thirteen months later, the Corps has achieved those objectives while reducing its force by 25 percent and driving attacks down to fewer than 100 per week - the lowest level since September 2003.
Austin cited several challenging times early in the Corps' deployment as it reacted to pressure from al-Qaeda in the north and Shi'a extremists in Basrah and the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City.
"It was a struggle that could have reversed the gains that we achieved the previous year, but we were able to respond to the challenge because our young men and women in uniform that are serving in Iraqi today are just as dedicated to our mission as they were six years ago," Austin said.
At the same time, the partnership between coalition troops and the increasingly professional Iraqi security forces grew more effective. In combining efforts against their enemies, U.S. and Iraqi forces reduced the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq from the north, and they expanded their presence in the south to intercept extremists, criminals and lethal accelerants, Austin said.
"Today, all our operations are combined Iraqi and coalition operations," Austin said.
This enhanced security environment enabled Iraq to achieve social and political successes that were unparalleled in previous years, Austin said. As evidence he cited January's safe and secure provincial elections; the successful transition of the Sons of Iraq program and the Government of Iraq's commitment to reconciliation among that nation's diverse religious and ethnic groups; comprehensive border controls; passage of key legislation by the government; and growing civil capacity and essential services.
Despite the past year's gains, Austin stressed that U.S. forces must plan for the future, especially the continuing development of Iraq's homegrown security forces.
"There are still challenges ahead that we must confront to ensure that Iraq can maintain sustainable security in 2010 and beyond," he said. "Much progress has been achieved, and much more progress will be achieved in the next year."