Stars and Stripes:
TIKRIT, Iraq — The top U.S. commander in northern Iraq said he believes that al-Qaida has been disrupted severely enough that coalition forces can now focus more on helping improve the Iraqi government and economy.
Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, who took command of Multi-National Division – North last month, said he believes the war in Iraq has reached a turning point and sees a chance for significant progress during the next 12 months.
“There’s still some hard fighting to be had,” Hertling, who is also commander of the 1st Armored Division, said in a Tuesday interview. “I’m not trying to candy coat this. But I think the difference today is that we’re beginning to see progress.”
Hertling, who served as assistant 1st Armored Division commander in Baghdad and southern Iraq in 2003 and 2004, said he also sees a “real inner feeling of hope” among Iraqis for the future of their country, unlike the uncertainty and despair he encountered before.
“When we left here in 2004, I didn’t know which way this was going to go,” he said. “Now I’m convinced that this is going to be OK. It’s just going to take a lot more hard work.”
His area of responsibility encompasses nine provinces, two of which are under Kurdish regional control, and five of nine key Iraqi cities — Mosul, Kirkuk, Tikrit, Samarra, and Baqouba.
But the surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops into Iraq, which was completed in July, has driven down violence across the country.
In northern Iraq, insurgent bomb attacks fell from 1,331 in August to 652 in October. Nonbomb attacks fell from 977 in August to 546 in October, according to coalition statistics. U.S. casualties across the region reached a high point in May, with 27 killed and 96 wounded. By October, casualties had dropped to eight killed and 60 wounded, a monthly toll roughly the same as one year ago.
While many U.S. commanders in Iraq say the surge has succeeded, Hertling said the Iraqi army deserves a great deal of credit for helping bring stability to areas that are outside U.S. control.
“We’ve got about 26,000 [U.S.] soldiers in the north,” he said. “What’s different this time than the last is that there are about 56,000 Iraqi soldiers in the northern provinces and they are covering a lot of ground we can’t cover.”
About 90 percent of the operations that U.S. forces in northern Iraq carry out are conducted with the Iraqi army, Hertling said. Iraqi forces have also shown an increasing ability and willingness to conduct independent operations, he said.
“The Iraqi army has gotten to the point where they realize that the army is a nationalistic organization, and that if Iraq is going to survive, then it’s going to rest on their shoulders,” Hertling said.
Despite a list of problems he says are still left to be dealt with, his ending words are encouraging:
“I think that in the next year we’re going to make history here,” he said. “I think we’re at a tipping point.”
Every month, every week and every day we are now starting to get reports of the good news in Iraq, just yesterday we brought you some very important reports and this shows even more.
And at Baghdad's most revered Sunni shrine, the Abu Hanifa mosque, voices blasted from loudspeakers yesterday urging residents to turn against Qaeda: "We are your sons, the sons of the awakening, and we want to end the operations of Al Qaeda."
Hearts and minds.... looks like General Petraeus is on to something.