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1209 PD: The View from Here: Iraq is now in control of its own security

Mike Gangwer Published on 05 August 2009

The work here in Iraq continues. That is, the work of leaving.

We are rapidly slowing down our presence here, especially the U.S. military. As I write this column, Iraq is now nearly in charge of its own security. This is a huge step for this country of nearly 30 million people.

As I travel in the International Zone, I am witnessing the transition of a security force no longer led by the U.S. Army. The uniforms, vehicles and mannerisms are distinctly different. The Iraqi Police and Iraqi Army have been a work in progress for years. Now, they are in control.

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I can honestly write here that many of us in the Diplomatic Corps are nervous. Not so much for safety concerns, but for the unknowns related to this transformation. The U.S. military and other coalition forces have been in Iraq for just over six years. As we travel anywhere in Iraq, the absolute comfort of seeing and being part of the U.S. military is real. Just yesterday for instance, two other diplomats and I visited one of the Red Zone checkpoints. We are sponsoring a conference here in two weeks and wanted to check the entry into a particular part of the International Zone. With a contractor at our side, we walked through several checkpoints on at least a quarter-mile-long line of chain-link fence, blast walls and metal detectors. At the fifth and next-to-last checkpoint, was an E3, a U.S. military infantryman.

We talked with him for a while, and learned he was three weeks from going home to Chicago. But he told us the U.S. presence at this checkpoint will end in two weeks. Trust me, this gave us cause for a thought of having fewer familiar faces in the zone between the Red Zone and the International Zone.

Yet as we transition between these two regions, the Iraqi Army, largely in charge of the checkpoints, appear to be well-trained. We are told that at every one there is at least one English speaker. They have much of the same equipment as our contractors do (all classified). Even the sniffer dogs are the same kind we use: German Shepherds for the most part.

One constraint we may have is travel. Moving about Iraq is extraordinarily difficult. For those of us under Chief of Mission (Ambassador Hill), the regional security office is in charge, unless we are manifested to the military side. And for both, travel is a function of both security and the weather. More often than not, this spring the sandstorms have grounded nearly everything. Last week while en route to the Ministry of Agriculture offices in the Red Zone, our personal security detail movement officer was told that all travel was held for weather. The problem was a sandstorm. Typically they arise from the wind in the early morning just prior to dawn. By mid-morning, the sand and fine dust is so thick that visibility is limited. Obviously aircraft cannot fly. And at times the ground effect is so great that driving in these storms is extremely hazardous.

The streets in Baghdad are busy, and this is a good sign. People are walking the streets and sidewalks, traffic is often snarled and backed up, and commerce is robust. We see children playing in parks, some going to school, and they are laughing or talking on their cell phones. Yes, nearly everyone here has one.

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What is certainly noticeable is the presence of police at every major intersection or roundabout. Dressed in a variety of uniforms, most carry long rifles as weapons, and all carry a sidearm strapped to their waist or hip. Yes, we do hear gunfire at times. Yes, we see ambulances and police cars, usually three-quarter-ton pickups painted white and blue, weaving through the crowded streets on their way somewhere. No different than any city in the U.S..

Baghdad, however, sorely needs essential services. Potable water, functioning sewer systems and the big one, electricity, are still a long ways off. I have seen photos of the city taken 30 or 40 years ago; the place was magnificent. But since that time the infrastructure has been neglected, destroyed and decayed. I have not seen a new building under construction, except for the one sitting next to the Parliament Building here in the International Zone.

The nervousness we all have is founded in part by the lack of rapid infrastructure improvement. People here in Iraq want these essential services restored. Many remember when turning on the faucet, flushing the toilet or pushing the light switch on actually worked. Yet until the security can be stabilized, infrastructure investment is downrange.

The work, the transformative work of rebuilding a failed state, is difficult and long-term. Destroying anything can be done with a flick of a switch on a detonator, the strike of a match or pulling the trigger of a weapon. Baghdad is full of remnants of all of these. Our work, thus, is built on the model of stabilization, the establishment of the rule of law, good governance and then economic rebirth.

Until the stability work is nearly complete then all the rest is yet to be done. Yes, we do work with our ministries and we do some developmental work. And we do, here and there, install projects that will help rebuild this country. But until the Iraqi government decides to build a stable model that instills national security, and I will use the word national pride, then the country will remain a failed one.

Our task, regardless of how one feels about how we got here, is to leave an example of stability, rule of law, governance and reconstruction. That is our job and that is my work while I am here. But we are coming home. And when we do, Iraqi people will be in charge.

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July 1 Iraq formally took control of its own security. The rest of the model will soon be in place. Someday I can come back to Iraq as a tourist. I will then view the streets of Baghdad without sitting behind the armored Plexiglas of a vehicle or wearing a Kevlar body vest under my sports coat on the way to the Ministry of Agriculture. PD

Mike Gangwer
Foreign Ag Service Soil and Water
Ministerial Adviser in Iraq

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