By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON - The commander of coalition troops in central Iraq said today he's dismayed that the American people aren't getting word about progress in Iraq. At the same time, he insisted it's too soon to declare victory and give Iraq's enemies an opportunity to retake it.
Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of Multi-National Division - Central, told military analysts via teleconference that he was struck during his weekly phone call to his parents that success in Iraq has become yesterday's news.
"Last Sunday, my dad asked if I was still in Iraq," Lynch said. "He's not seeing it on TV because bad things aren't happening over here. It's less publicized. That breaks my heart, because I've got 20,000 'Dog Face Soldiers' working their (butts) off every day over here making great progress for the United States of America, and we just have to get that story told."
Lynch cited vast improvements since March, when his 3rd Infantry Division troops arrived in Iraq as part of the troop surge and established Multi-National Division - Center. Attacks that averaged 25 per day in his battle space are now down to fewer than five, most of them ineffective. Civilian casualties have dropped about 75 percent since March. U.S. and coalition casualties have dropped 60 percent.
"So the indicators of progress on a secure line are clearly in an upward trend," Lynch said.
Lynch attributes that success to three major factors: the early-2007 surge of additional forces into Baghdad and western Iraq, an increase in patrol bases within Iraqi neighborhoods, and the success of concerned local citizen programs.
Surge forces "gave us the combat power to take the fight to the enemy," particularly to areas the enemy had controlled in the absence of coalition or Iraq forces.
Coalition and Iraq troops set up 53 patrol bases within neighborhoods in the Multi-National Division - Center operating area and began working from them rather than the larger forward operating bases. When troops left their FOBs to conduct operations then returned to them afterward, the enemy seized the opportunity to attack Iraqi civilians who had worked with them, Lynch said.
Now that troops live and work from patrol bases in the community, more Iraqis are stepping forward to cooperate, he said. "Civilians come forward and ask two questions: 'Are you staying?'" Lynch said. "And if the answer is 'yes,' then their second question is, 'What can we do to help?'"
Some 31,000 concerned local citizens within Lynch's command area are making a huge impact on coalition and Iraqi operations. During the past several months alone, they've pointed out 400 emplaced improvised explosive devices and more than 400 weapons caches, Lynch said. They've also killed or captured almost 500 insurgents themselves and turned in five of the division's high-value targets.
"That's the power of the concerned local citizen program," Lynch said.
Lynch said it's no surprise that Iraqi citizens are increasingly cooperating with the coalition. "I am absolutely convinced that the population of Iraq is just tired of the violence. They are tired of the intimidation. They are tired of the harassment. They are tired of not being able to send their kids to school and go to work, so now they have (risen) up to help," he said. "That's what I see every day."
As the Iraqi army, and to a lesser degree, the national police, become increasingly capable, Lynch said, he supports a transfer of responsibility for some areas to Iraqi security forces. He noted that five U.S. brigades will leave Iraq by July and that commanders in Iraq are starting to look at longer-term troop-withdraw plans that will depend on evolving conditions there.
He cautioned against withdrawing too many troops too quickly, allowing enemy forces to unravel all that's been accomplished.
"We've lost 126 soldiers since we've been here. One hundred twenty-six of my soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice," Lynch said. "And I'll be (darned) if I'm going to advocate giving up ground that they died for. ... We are just not going to do that. The place will go back in a heartbeat."
Lynch has what he calls a "96-hour rule."
"If you've got an area that you've taken away and you walk away from it, 96 hours later the enemy is back -- and he's intimidating the population (and) he's killing innocent people," he said. "So we just have to manage this transition very diligently."