By John D. Banusiewicz
American Forces Press Service
BAGHDAD, April 7, 2011 - With the last U.S. forces remaining in Iraq scheduled to depart by year's end, Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III reflected today on the steps forward he's seen in three tours of duty here.
"We've made a lot of progress here in Iraq over the last eight years, the commander of U.S. Forces Iraq told reporters here traveling with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. "It's been interesting to watch things develop. It's been very hard and deliberate work, but I think we're beginning to see some dividends here."
The general noted that ever since the first platoon of Iraq's new security force stood up after Saddam Hussein was removed from power, it has been engaged in some form of combat.
"We've grown this force. We've manned it, trained it and equipped it, all while fighting," he said. "As a result of that, we've developed a pretty good capability to provide for internal security."
That effort, however, did not allow the opportunity to focus in earnest on providing for an Iraqi capability for defense against external threats, Austin acknowledged.
"So the Iraqis still need to work on that," he said. "[They need] the ability to defend the skies, and they still need work on combined-arms training -- modern equipment, modern tanks and howitzers, and tanks and howitzers working together in combined action."
Going forward, the general added, the Iraqi security forces also must continue working to improve their logistics systems and further develop their intelligence capabilities.
Austin said the Iraqis have a good appreciation for what they need, and if they believe they'll require help in the future, they'll have to request it.
And with the need under the current agreement for the 47,000 remaining U.S. forces to depart Iraq over the next eight months, "sooner is better" for such a request to occur, the general said.
The time Iraq is taking to form its government has had an impact on all of this, Austin noted.
"Without a minister of defense and a minister of interior, it's difficult for the military and police forces to have that dialogue in earnest and make whatever recommendations are appropriate to the strategic leadership," he said. The Iraqi army comes under the defense ministry, and the national police work for the interior minister.
The absence of a link between the operational levels in the two ministries and Iraq's strategic-level leaders makes things difficult, the general said. Unlike in the United States, where redundant systems help to make that process continue to flow, Austin added, Iraq has a young government in which that principle is not yet present.
For now, Austin said, the remaining U.S. forces in Iraq will continue their missions.
"Our mandate is, quite frankly, to help the Iraqi security forces improve as much as we can for as long as we can," he said. "We're trying to help to create a credible force here, and we're doing everything we can until we have to focus in earnest on redeployment and reposturing."
Maintaining the current level of U.S. forces as long as possible also benefits the force-protection effort, the general added.
As Iraq prepares to stand on its own, Austin said, its leaders are proud of their democracy.
"Democracy is not easy," he said, "but it's pretty good. When other folks are trying to acquire a democracy, they have one. They've worked hard to get to where they are, and there's something to be said about that.
The general praised the hard work and sacrifices of U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and their families in bringing Iraq to where it is today.
"Some of these youngsters are on their fourth tour or fifth tour, and they saddle up and come back and do this, and they do feel as if they're making a difference, and they're proud of what they're doing," he said.
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