Even with all the debate in the U.S. over Iraq strategy, morale on the ground here is good, the commander of Multinational Force West said today.
Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer said that retention among Marines based in Iraq is more than 140 percent of the goal. "If they didn't think what they were doing was important, then they wouldn't reenlist," he said during an interview.
He said the situation in Anbar province is difficult, but progress is being made. "It's going to be slow," Zilmer said. "We will be at this for a long time."
The general said he is encouraged by cooperation tribal sheikhs are providing the coalition in the province. Local leaders in and around Ramadi finally had enough of al Qaeda in Iraq violence and intimidation and began cooperating with the U.S. forces in the area. "The sheikhs have a lot of power," Zilmer said. "As soon as they put it out that people should cooperate, we started getting volunteers."
The Iraqi police in Anbar are fairly well-manned, but there are problems recruiting soldiers, Zilmer said. Part of that is because police remain local, while soldiers can get assigned anywhere in the country. Another problem is a requirement that Iraqi soldiers know how to read and write. Many men in Anbar province do not have those skills. "Al Qaeda doesn't have that same requirement," Zilmer said.
The help the sheikhs provide also means more tips coming in to the Iraqi authorities and more cooperation when forces go to neighborhoods, he said. It has also had an effect on the number of attacks in the city. "We hope this cooperation spreads beyond Ramadi," he said. "Success breeds success."
Another bright spot in Anbar is in and around Al Qaim, on the Syrian border. "Last year there were pitched battles in the city," he said. "Now the tribal leaders are cooperating, and the police and army units cooperate with each other and with us."
The people of Al Qaim are giving the Iraqi government a chance to establish order, Zilmer said.
Despite these successes, the province is a huge area to cover. The addition of a Marine amphibious unit has helped tamp down some of the problems, the general said, but what he really needs are more Iraqi forces.
Many of the Marines and soldiers in the region are on their second or third tour, yet their morale is still high. "They come out here and decide they will make a difference," Zilmer said. "And they do. Every day."