The commander of coalition forces in Iraq's western al-Anbar Province says there has been major and irreversible progress in the area in recent months. But speaking to reporters Friday, he declined to say when that might permit a reduction of foreign forces in the area. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
Speaking from Iraq via satellite, Major General Walter Gaskin made the type of absolute statements most commanders try to avoid. "I believe we have turned the corner," he said.
To support his view, General Gaskin said there were 98 violent incidents in al-Anbar Province during the past week, compared to more than 400 during the same week a year ago. He showed a chart, indicating that is part of a new trend in the province, and he credited local leaders for making decisions and taking actions to oppose terrorists and support the Iraqi government and coalition forces. "This is a stark departure from historic norms. Something significant has changed from previous years. We have broken the cycle of violence," he said.
But asked whether that progress might result in a reduction of U.S. forces in the area later this year, or perhaps early next year, General Gaskin was cautious. "Since we started this military and this governance from the bottom due to de-Baathification and the disbanding of the army, it takes time to gain experience. I see that experience happening every day. But I don't see it happening overnight. I believe it's another couple of years in order to get that," he said.
The general said the increased number of U.S. forces he has as part of the troop surge are enabling him to maintain what he called "a persistent presence" in areas where insurgents operated in the past. He said that function can be handled by Iraqi forces eventually, but they are not ready yet. "You cannot buy, nor can you fast-forward, experience. It has to be worked out. And I think they are making remarkable progress," he said.
General Gaskin's view on the need for more time echoes comments from his counterparts in other sectors of Iraq, as well as senior commanders in Baghdad.
[Another commander, Major General Rick Lynch, said in an interview with the Associated Press that if the buildup is reversed before this time next year, the military risks giving up recent security gains. Lynch commands coalition forces south of Baghdad.]
On Thursday, the second ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, said he will not be able to make a "good" assessment of the new strategy until November. But on Friday, General Odierno and other officials issued statements saying they do not intend to try to avoid making the September progress report Congress has required. The general said he only meant to say he would have an even better understanding of the trends in Iraq later in the year.
On Friday at the White House, President Bush referred to the progress in al-Anbar Province and elsewhere, and again appealed for more time to implement the new strategy and troop surge he announced in January. "These successes demonstrate the gains our troops are making in Iraq, and the importance of giving our military the time they need to give their new strategy a chance to work," he said.
The president noted that the full military surge he ordered only became operational a month ago. He chided the Senate, saying it confirmed his new Iraq commander, General David Petraeus, unanimously just a few months ago, and now many senators are already declaring his effort a failure.
Many members of Congress, including a growing number from the president's own Republican Party, say they want a U.S. withdrawal to begin soon, and some want a full withdrawal by next spring.