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WASHINGTON — Back in the U.S. less than one week after a 13-month tour as commander of Multi-National Forces-West in Iraq, U.S. Marines Maj. Gen. John Kelly said there has been a “return to normalcy” in the once notoriously dangerous Anbar province that has surprised even him.

During a Tuesday meeting with reporters, Kelly said he prodded Iraqi police and army forces to take over their security by keeping U.S. Marines away from the cities and populated areas.

“It impedes the progress of the mission if you keep too many [U.S.] forces in Iraq, because they get in the way,” Kelly said. For too long, he added, U.S. troops were like a “security blanket” for Iraqis.

But Kelly said that he could not overstate how the security threat had improved in his region in just one year’s time. Even locals have been slow to embrace the relative peace.

“It was as hard for them to accept it as it was for us,” he said.

When Kelly arrived to Anbar, there were 50 attacks per week, but by the time he left that number had fallen to 12, most of which he considered “meaningless events.” If Anbar was an island, Kelly said, he would have reduced forces there months ago.

The general gave much of the credit for stability to those Iraqis reaching out to U.S. Marines who were willing to do the work of nation-building.

“We’re not ashamed to do windows,” Kelly said.

Kelly said that if the objective for Iraq is to reach a level of violence that is manageable by Iraqi forces, then Anbar already is there. As for those Iraqi’s who simply want the U.S. to leave, Kelly said that the slow return to normalcy, sparked by the closing of Camp Fallujah, has convinced nationalists that they simply have to wait.

Already the US has closed over 100 bases, very publicly, Kelly said. “We’re leaving,” he said, and as more Iraqi’s realize that, “there’s no reason to fight us.”

Transferring that success to Afghanistan, he said, would require the same face-to-face outreach by U.S. forces there. It is a delicate balance of having forward-deployed Marines tasked with killing enemy fighters, and finding common connections with local populations, Kelly explained.

“You can’t do it in a vehicle … You have to get out and look them in the eye and talk to them at their level,” he said. “Just chasing the bad guy is not good enough … The real solution is connecting with the people.”

“If all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail,” Kelly said. “One of the things you can tap into is the sameness in people.”

Kelly also criticized U.S. contractors operating downrange with too much bravado and not enough cooperation with U.S. forces and local law enforcement. “We need a more disciplined, more adult, less cowboyish type of people,” he said, praising the British for exhibiting a model of contractor “that was more professional” than Americans.

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