FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Lieutenant Gen. Frank G. Helmick, XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg commanding general, who is currently serving as deputy commanding general of U.S. Forces-Iraq said Iraqi forces are taking a "huge step in the right direction," during a video teleconference interview Friday at Fort Bragg.

Helmick referred to a live-fire exercise, which was conducted by an Iraqi infantry battalion. He said the country's security forces are beginning to build its external, combined arms capability and is taking ownership in preparing for that role, including planning and coordinating their own exercise, which is set to take place April 18.

"There is a tremendous amount of work that is ongoing as we move from a military-led operation to a civilian-led operation as we transition and transfer all that we're doing to the Department of State and to (Central Command) and to the government of Iraq and to the Iraqi security forces, at the same time, as we get ready to depart," Helmick said during the interview.

Helmick, who has the responsibility of "making sure that the train is on the right track, that the train is running on time and that the train stops where it is supposed to stop." His official title in Iraq is deputy commanding general for operations and he said the U.S. currently has about 50,000 Soldiers on the ground in the country. Of those 50,000 troops, about 24,000 are working in aviation, logistics, command-and control, medical and special operations jobs.

"They advise, train and assist the Iraqi security forces. They provide security for everything that the embassy does - the provincial reconstruction teams, they do route clearance, logistics convoys and they build capabilities inside Iraqi security forces," Helmick explained.

He said because of the high optempo and approaching deadline, the U.S. forces have developed their own description of their mission in Iraq.

"What we say around here is that the days are really, really long, but the weeks are really, really short," Helmick said, pointing out that the U.S. deadline is Dec. 31 and its rapidly approaching. "That is true, the time is flying by."

He said the other 26,000 Soldiers there make up the six advise-and-assist brigades and one advise-and-assist task force that operates in the country.

Helmick added that the ISF has 300,000 personnel and the country's police forces has at least 500,000 members. Helmick said they also have a counterterrorism force that numbers about 4,000.
"That organization works with our special operations forces and Special Forces that are here in country. That counterterrorism services is probably the best counterterrorism force in the region. They are very, very good because they've been fighting for the last four or five years at a very high optempo," he said.

Helmick said one of the things U.S. forces are doing in Iraq is training the Iraqis in combined arms methods, as the country gets its tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers online to provide for an external defense of the country.

"Other things we're training them on is more sophisticated than the Iraqis have had in the past and that is casualty evacuation, logistics, route-clearing with their engineer units and prime power," Helmick explained. "We have an engineer unit that trains them on how to maintain and run these massive generators, something that the Iraqis haven't had the need or requirement to do, but will as they need to maintain these generators. That is a very good thing for them."

Helmick added that on April 18, U.S. Forces and Iraqi security forces will conduct their first joint training exercise. He said the entire exercise will be planned and run by Iraqi forces.
Helmick pointed out that the al-Qaeda threat still remains in the country. He noted that although attacks have been minimized, they still occur.

He said more than 50 people were killed and others injured March 29 in Tikrit. According to new reports, gunmen, posing as Iraqi security troops, stormed the provincial council building and took dozens hostage. Tikrit, the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown, is located about 90 miles north of Baghdad.

Helmick said terrorist activity in the country is marginalized but they continue to attack and al-Qaeda is still alive and well in the country.

He also acknowledged that Iraq faces some challenges in the future, including a limited aviation capability, but added that it has a more than capable internal security force as it works toward establishing external security.

Helmick said the pre-set deadline marks a turning point for U.S. forces and their Iraqi counterparts, but added that Iraq forces will continue to improve.

"December 31 is not an end point, it's a transition point," Helmick said. "It's a transition point as we seamlessly continue to build a reliable partner in the country of Iraq and it is a transition point as we continue to have relationships with all the military and civilian members who lead the military here and we transition those relationships over to State Department personnel."