Hertling: Security gains will come slowly in Iraq
July 22, 2008
KIRKUK, Iraq — Coalition forces are making progress in northern Iraq, but observers should not expect a single "Anbar moment" marking a point when the entire region is ready to return to Iraqi control, said Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of the 1st Armored Division, the unit in charge of northern Iraq.
Ever since security gains in Anbar started last year, culminating in the decision to return the province to Iraqi control, the area has been the gold standard for progress in the country.
Yet northern Iraq is not Anbar, Hertling warned. It has four very different provinces, 136 tribes and hundreds of sub-tribes. By contrast, Anbar has one tribe and experienced a climactic traumatic attack — the assassination of a sheik — that convinced the populace to turn around.
The provinces will reach the Anbar stage at different moments, when the Iraqi government will determine whether it will accept them back, he said. In the meantime, leaders regularly look at the progress of each province, using about 20 "provincial Iraqi control" indicators to determine how it’s doing.
"That’s a very scientific way to look at it — and this thing is very much an art form," Hertling said.
Anbar province was officially scheduled to take over its own security earlier this month, but there have been delays. The move is not expected to change the role of U.S. forces in the province. Military officials say Iraqi troops are already taking the lead in most operations.
Among the northern provinces, Kirkuk is the furthest along, Hertling said. The area has been stable since units quieted down previously volatile areas like the Hawijah district. Arab-Kurd disputes about which parts of the oil-rich province will join the Kurdistan Regional Government have so far been limited to the political arena.
"I thought it was going to be a big deal by August — a really big deal," Hertling said.
Salah ad Din province is close on Kirkuk’s heels. In February, fighters shot at American patrols each time they ventured into Dawr, the city where Saddam Hussein was caught. A 2005 uprising in Balad burned a huge part of that city. Now these areas are quiet, he said. The area has seen particular success with the reconciliation movement, a program that allows insurgents to turn themselves in so long as they never committed war crimes.
However, the area has worse than average corruption that was spawned in part by the central role it played in the United Nation’s Oil for Food program. The program was started in December 1996 to help Iraqis cope with U.N. sanctions, but investigators have accused half of the 4,500 companies involve in the program with corruption.
The remaining two provinces in northern Iraq have seen success but are proving more problematic, partly because they are among the last al- Qaida strongholds. In Diyala, soldiers have cleared war-torn areas like Baqoubah and Muqdadiyah, but Hertling said they haven’t entered the "hold and build" phases there yet. Closer to the Iranian border, Iraqi security forces must watch for arms smugglers. There may also be some traffic between Diyala and the Shiite slum of Sadr City. The province has looming Arab-Kurd tensions, as well.
Ninevah province is facing similar challenges. Insurgents are fighting hard to regain control of Mosul after setbacks following Iraqi Army operations this spring. The city is a prize for whoever controls it, Hertling said. It has good access to Syria and the Kurdish areas. The province’s western desert allows fighters to travel from village to village on the way to Mosul.
"That’s going to be our continuing toughest fight, I think, just because of its geographic location," Hertling said.
Despite the challenges, Hertling remains upbeat about the area, although he didn’t give any specific dates for when he expects to return the provinces to Iraqi control.
"Are we going to have an Anbar moment?" he asked. "We’re probably going to have a lot of them."