One of the key elements of the new Iraq Security Plan is the creation of Joint Security Stations throughout Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi forces live and work together. The goal is to provide full-time mentoring to Iraqi forces, and full-time security to the city's neighborhoods. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently visited one of those joint stations.
Secretary Gates' helicopter blew up a huge cloud of debris as it landed in the sandy field next to the al-Madain Joint Security Station in southeastern Baghdad. He wore body armor but no helmet as he walked around to the entrance of the small base, along with a large security contingent and senior U.S. and Iraqi officers.
Inside the high walls of the base, he was formally greeted by Iraqi Staff Major General Riyadh Jalal Tawfiq. General Tawfiq introduced the Iraqi army and police commanders in the district, as well as the civilian council leader. During the briefing, U.S. Army Major Christopher Wendland, the second-ranking U.S. officer at this Joint Security Station, also talked about those Iraqi officials.
"The key to such good security is really the partnership. I mean, you shook the hands of the gentlemen here, but these are like my brothers in terms of making sure security is here," said Major Wendland. "They keep us on track and they tell us what the needs are. And we work with them so they can get to those needs. This room here is really the synergy room."
The major said that in the "synergy room," U.S. and Iraqi officials meet several times a week to discuss problems and plan operations. In an interview, Major Wendland said that kind of working-level cooperation is the key to restoring security to Baghdad neighborhoods, but it doesn't happen quickly.
"In my particular area right now, we're in a battle, a battle for Baghdad. We know that this is real critical for us to do well, and we're doing the best that we can. And the insurgents, they also know that there's an agenda on the table and there's a timeline. So because of that, they also seem to be coming out a little more," said Major Wendland.
A New Strategy
When these U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad last September, they never expected to be living with Iraqi forces at a local base like this one. In fact, they expected that by now they would be safely on the outskirts of Baghdad while Iraqi soldiers and police handled security inside the city. Major Sean Ryan is another officer in the unit.
"When we got here, the mission was basically to slowly integrate the Iraqis for them to take over. It didn't exactly work out that way. We got into an offensive operation. And part of the offensive operation was allowing the Iraqis to team up with the coalition forces, to partner-up, to start clearing some of these neighborhoods," says Major Ryan.
The senior Iraqi officer in this part of Baghdad, General Tawfiq, says things changed for everyone in January when President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the new Iraq Security Plan and the increase in U.S. troops. "Everything changed. The insurgency activity is reduced and the [good] result is increased, and the cooperation of the local council. But still, we have some areas and bad people. And we will get them down with the cooperation of all of the security force and the civilians; of course, and coalition cooperation and coordination," General Tawfiq said.
The surge also tripled the number of U.S. forces in this part of Baghdad and brought in experienced Iraqi troops from the western part of the country. U.S. Army Colonel Jeffrey Bannister says when he was the only American brigade commander in this part of Baghdad, his ability to operate was limited. Now, he says, with three brigades in the region -- about 10-thousand troops -- the situation has improved significantly.
"We didn't know what we didn't know then. We were kind of an inch deep, [and] mile wide, so to speak. We know a lot more now. We have access everywhere and we have sustained access everywhere. And that's kind of the key," says Colonel Bannister.
Senior American officers say it will be several months before they can provide even an initial assessment of the troop surge and strategy change. But Major Wendland says he can already see the impact in reduced violence in the area and better U.S.-Iraqi cooperation.
"Initially, [in] September, October, [and] November, we were kind of on the defensive. It was difficult for us to react to a lot of situations. We didn't have enough, I believe, personally, for my particular area, we didn't have enough combat power to go out there and react to everything all the time. And it wasn't really a combined operation as much as it could be. The Joint Security Station concept really put everybody together," says Major Wendland.
And Major Wendland says he is working with a mostly Shiite Iraqi Army unit, securing a mostly Sunni neighborhood. "I even went out and talked to the guys in the guard post and they're [saying] like, 'Hey, I'm Shia and I'm guarding this Sunni mosque, how's that?' And I'm [saying] like, 'That's pretty good; you guys are working hard together.'"
U.S. Defense Secretary Gates says the nearly 40 Joint Security Stations and a dozen smaller combat outposts are key parts of the new strategy. "I would like to thank our Iraqi Army and Police friends. They are serving the interests of the Iraqi people. And we're here to help," said Secretary Gates.
Gates says if the U.S. and Iraqi forces working together can provide security to Baghdad's neighborhoods, local residents will be more willing to provide information about the insurgents that can help "break the cycle of violence." Officers say there is already some evidence of that, although they acknowledge there is still a lot of work to be done.
That work resumed at al-Madain Joint Security Station as soon as Secretary Gates' helicopter took off, as Major Wendland and his Iraqi counterparts convened a meeting in their "synergy room" to review recent developments and make their plans for the coming days.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.