- The Washington Times - Monday, August 30, 2010

Iraqis say Diyala province, northeast of the capital between Sadr City and Iran, “controls the gates to Baghdad.” In Diyala, Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds live together in small communities. Since 2003, Diyala has been a deadly area for U.S. and Iraqi forces. A memorial wall at Forward Operating Base Warhorse in Baqouba lists the names of 348 American soldiers who died in the province fighting for a better Iraq. Despite this history, like Iraq in general, Diyala is headed in the right direction.

Across northern Iraq, attacks in July were at their lowest point since 2004. In Diyala specifically, attacks decreased from a monthly high of 758 in May 2007 to just 35 for July 2010. The fortunes in this province changed because the Iraqi military, government and the people themselves fought to restore stability.

U.S. forces in Diyala have drawn down to just over two battalions and are actively advising, training and assisting the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) without issue. The ISF improve daily and have developed mature intelligence networks; execute time-sensitive, warrant-driven cordon and searches; and routinely defuseimprovised explosive devices. They already are conducting a counterinsurgency campaign but still need U.S. help in specialized areas. Terrorists still conduct infrequent, predominantly ineffective attacks but will fail because the people do not support their ideology and work by the ISF to drive the enemy from their neighborhoods.

Leading the ISF in Diyala is Lt. Gen. Tariq Abd Al-Wahb Jasim Mahdi al-Assawi, commander of the Diyala Operations Center. All Iraqi security forces in the province fall under his command. A seasoned veteranwho has fought for his country since the Iran-Iraq war, Gen. Tariq has been directed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to go to Diyala to halt the insurgency and secure peace in the province. Religious but not sectarian, he quotes Sun Tzu and Machiavelli and has adapted U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine to Iraqi culture.

Gen. Tariq effectively reconciles tribal disputes, works with the provincial government to restore essential services, demands the dismissal of complicit or sectarian officers, finds compromise to defuse Arab-Kurd flash point issues and fuses intelligence from Iraqi and U.S. sources. He is a competent combat commander who considers himself an Iraqi above all things. He and many just like him are why Iraqis have taken the lead in counterinsurgency and why U.S. forces can focus on supporting them through advise-and-assist operations.

Since the January 2009 provincial elections, the provincial government in Diyala has improved steadily. It can offer and award contracts in an open manner free of corruption, obtain internal and foreign investment, conduct effective financial planning, incorporate input from the district councils and help secure Diyala by partnering with Gen. Tariq and setting security objectives for the province.

Although the rule of law in Diyala functions, it still needs improvement. Without effective courts, meaningful security gains cannot be sustained as soldiers and police become frustrated when terrorists they capture are released. However, an independent internal affairs division now investigates, tries and convicts corrupt police, the ISF conducts arrests after receiving warrants, and judges stand up to intimidation and convict terrorists.

Although vastly improved, Diyala remains a dangerous place. The Sept. 1 drawdown to 50,000 U.S. troops and the beginning of Operation New Dawn does not mean a light switched off in Diyala. Provincial, military and tribal leaders want a continued U.S. military and State Department presence to aid their efforts over the next 16 months. While our capable soldiers still have the right to actively defend themselves, terrorists will occasionally execute successful attacks - two U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi judge were killed here in the past month.

Significant challenges remain, but the turnaround from the situation since just last year is remarkable. Forward progress in Diyala is crucial to the development of a secure and sovereign Iraq. I’m confident that as the U.S. drawdown of forces continues and our support switches from a military to civilian State Department-led effort, the military and governmental leadership of Diyala will ensure the province becomes the secure and prosperous gateway to Baghdad that is so critical to the future of Iraq.

Brig. Gen. Pat Donahue is the deputy commanding general for the 3rd Infantry Division and Task Force Marne. This is his third deployment to Iraq. He also has served twice in Afghanistan as a brigade combat team commander with the 82d Airborne Division.