Monday, May 31, 2004

TIKRIT, Iraq — Here in Saddam Hussein’s hometown, the senior U.S. military officer says attacks on coalition forces are down and rebuilding efforts are looking up as the June 30 transfer of power to an Iraqi government approaches.

As commander of the 1st Infantry Division, Maj. Gen. John Batiste leads thousands of U.S. and coalition forces deployed in the northern half of Iraq, including Mosul, Tikrit and Baquba.

“The people in our area are starting to come forward in large numbers, embracing the future. That includes Sunnis, Shia, Kurds and Turks,” Gen. Batiste said.

Although insurgent attacks have subsided somewhat, Gen. Batiste emphasized that U.S. forces still are facing about 15 enemy attacks per day in the regions he commands.

That is “still too high,” he said. Nevertheless, it represents a substantial decrease from the surge of attacks in April.

The general also said roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, remain a problem.

Other U.S. officials in Tikrit stressed that the level of cooperation from the Iraqi population is directly linked to the level of progress in creating jobs and restoring the country’s basic infrastructure, including schools, power plants and factories.

In that regard, Gen. Batiste was enthusiastic about the work his soldiers and local Iraqis are doing to prepare for June 30.

“All the work we’re doing with respect to quality of life, infrastructure improvement, setting up the Iraqi security forces is phenomenal.

“We’re spending $62 million in a short period of time on projects to help the people. They see it coming, and they like it. There is a change of attitude in the northern provinces.”

Gen. Batiste said his soldiers are eager to venture out to rebuild the community, but efforts are slowed by the need to protect themselves.

Other officials agreed that attacks from small groups of insurgents have slowed the pace of reconstruction. They said the Iraqis, at times, express impatience and ask that the coalition set specific deadlines for the promised restoration of basic functions.

Gen. Batiste said training and recruiting more Iraqi police is vital to facilitate the upcoming turnover, crediting the growing role of Iraqi security forces in part to the reduced number of attacks.

“On June 30th, you will see some changes. You’ll see more and more joint patrols within the cities,” he said.

The Iraqi security forces are, for the most part, graduates of a three-week course that provides basic training and varying kinds of leadership development, American officials said.

The military also is working through “security working groups” in each major city in northern Iraq to get civilian leaders more deeply involved in their own defense.

Each group is made up of the local U.S. battalion commander, the mayor, a battalion commander from the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, a chief of emergency services and senior religious leaders.

“We will continue to conduct combat operations when we get actionable intelligence that says an enemy is at a given point on the ground at a given time,” Gen. Batiste said.

“We’ll go after them, but we’ll go after them with the Iraqi security forces.”

Gen. Batiste acknowledged that instilling a democratic sensibility in a country far more familiar with brutality and dictatorship is a challenge.

“It is going to take some work, so a big part of our job is to just sit down and talk and discuss. There are a lot of company commanders here in the field who spend time at night with a city mayor just sitting and talking about democracy and the rule of law,” he said.

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