Colonel Mike Kershaw. I command 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, which is known as the Commando Brigade — and we’re based out of Fort Drum, New York — currently is assigned for duty as part of Multinational Division-Center.
I’ve got the honor of commanding what the Army Times has just announced is the most deployed brigade in the United States Army. Once we complete this deployment, this brigade combat team will have a total of 40 months deployed in support of the global war on terrorism.
It’s a highly experienced unit, particularly within the noncommissioned officer corps, most of whom deployed multiple times throughout their career. One first sergeant in our brigade has deployed nine times with the same battalion since his start in the Army 17 years ago.
And the strength of our brigade, we believe, comes from their adaptability and flexibility, which has been gained in multiple deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq and the Horn of Africa since 9/11. And I think I’m privileged to lead what’s truly a veteran unit.
Currently we’re in month 14 of a 15-month deployment to southwest Baghdad. And this gives me an opportunity to talk about what the brigade has done in the last 14 months, and how the situation has changed in an area that was once known as the Triangle of Death. And I’ll begin by describing the environment we walked into in August of 2006.
To get everybody kind of up to speed, for those of you who hadn’t been here, our area of operations is a 330-square mile area that encompasses Mahmudiyah, Yusufiya, Lutifiyah, essentially the Euphrates River Valley. And the area is mostly Sunni tribes, farmland, agricultural, and it’s roughly a 70-30 split for Shi’a and Sunnis within the largest population center of Mahmudiyah, but as you move west, it becomes almost entirely Sunni and in fact borders the Anbar province. The land’s partitioned by irrigation canals. The farmers live on their land, so the population is spread out throughout the area of operations, with small villages that pop up really literally across the farmlands.
This is a former Ba’athist stronghold, predominantly Sunnis that lived here, who were removed from prestigious positions within the government, and they helped begin the insurgency. Al Qaeda was able to capitalize on this as a marriage of convenience. The Medina Republican Guard Division is stationed down here, as well as the Qa Qaa weapons facility, and that area provided the people and the ordnance and the know-how to set a stage for a fairly lethal insurgency, which used IEDs primarily and other weapons systems as their method of attack.
The Hillah highway, which runs from Baghdad through the city of Mahmudiyah, is the major transit route from the city to the Shi’a holy cities predominantly in the south, making the eastern part of our sector really key terrain for the Shi’a in this country. Over the first several years, there was really little or no permanent coalition presence in these areas as units moved through en route to Baghdad or up to points north or west as part of our campaign in this country.
Since there was really no long-term presence in our area, our predecessors from the Strike Brigade of the 101st literally had their way into the heartland of this al Qaeda sanctuary. Their hard fight really put us in a good position to launch our counterinsurgency operations, which commenced 20 September 2006, as we assumed this area of operations from our Strike brethren. We were fortunate that we knew we were coming to this area. This brigade completed a rotation really in the western part of the city the year prior, so really in the year between deployments, we were able to study the area and develop the methods for which we wanted to work.
We initially looked at this is a classic counterinsurgency, and we moved in and secured the people. We had several examples we were able to follow and studied the counterinsurgency doctrine that our Army has been pushing to the forefront and were able to apply that immediately upon getting here.
One of our most notable accomplishments is seizing the Yusufiya thermal power plant, a former Russian project to provide power to the Euphrates River Valley. One of your colleagues, Josh White from The Washington Post, was embedded with us at that time. And it really was a large concrete, almost Stalinistic, structure, a project between Saddam and the Russians. But really it was a moral rallying point for al Qaeda in this valley. It’s only 30 percent complete. Because of its massive size, and with there being no security there, it became sort of an al Qaeda way point for terrorists moving from the predominantly western part of the country into sanctuaries to attack Baghdad.
On 23 October, we seized it with a two-company assault from the Golden Dragons, and since then it’s been known as Patrol Base Dragon.
One of the legacies I think we’ll also leave behind here is our shared partnership with the 4th Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Army. It’s a very capable brigade. It’s very well-led. They’ve conducted almost 138 air assaults, 53 brigade-level operations, 69 battalion-level operations. And in fact, we really conduct almost no operations where we do not have Iraqi forces either embedded with us or where they are in the lead.
Now we’ve begun to see what’s been called the Anbar awakening in other parts of Iraq spread to our AO. That happened about four or five months ago. My reconnaissance squadron, the 189 Cavalry, began working with some local leaders that were becoming disenchanted with the way that al Qaeda was terrorizing the local area. And what was first a marriage of convenience for the local insurgents and al Qaeda, from really a nationalistic resistance, really became splintered.
We were able to capitalize on this, and as al Qaeda overstayed their welcome by forcing, you know, extremist kind of Taliban types of heavy-handed approaches to the insurgency and take liberties like, you know, marriages of convenience with the local females, restricting smoking to the local villagers and just these type of coercive acts, forcing them to emplace IEDs — it really eroded the support that al Qaeda may have had for the local insurgents.
And we were able to get with the local sheikhs and the former members of the military that had had enough. And we’ve really seen a dramatic reversal in the security situation, which really started really in about mid-June. My cavalry squadron was able to coordinate with some of these local leaders that wanted to rid al Qaeda out of their areas. They were able to do this on a small scale very successfully and removed — using a safe house in their area, and then they asked to do further operations to clear al Qaeda out of their areas.
And we coordinated them to prevent any accidental clashes between coalition and these new volunteer or what have now become called “concerned citizens.” And this has really been a turning point for what we now call “Concerned Local Citizen Movement” in our area of operation. From this point, we began on capitalizing on the local Sunnis, former military members who wanted to come back into the army, wanted a part of the government. And this has spread into several areas, including Shi’a areas, in our sector as well.
We’ve developed programs to legitimize these groups. We’ve taken members of the government out to inspect them, provided security contracts for them to guard roads and critical infrastructure. We pay them about $10 a day to guard their local areas. That’s about two- third of what an Iraqi policeman makes.
And we’ve also given them an incentive, for them to move forward in joining more legitimate Iraqi security forces. And we’re seeing them volunteer to do that on an increasing basis.
We’ve screened these concerned citizens. We use biometric databases, retinal scans, fingerprints, photos. And this has also allowed us to ferret out the insurgents who have been trying to hide amongst these groups as they’ve turned against them. To date, we’ve had great success doing that.
Just some figures: We’ve enrolled over 16,000 military-age males in our sector, with about 8,800 right now under contract, guarding their local tribal areas. We’ve been able to conduct an Iraqi police recruiting drive, which has brought out nearly 10,000 applicants, of whom over 5,800 have met the initial phase one and phase two requirements to be an Iraqi shurta or police officer.
And the results from an attack standpoint have been amazing. Since we’ve been working with these concerned citizens, they’ve turned in or given us some information which has led to the apprehension of over 85 terrorists, three of whom we have been tracking since our arrival in country. One was wanted for leading the attack against our predecessors’ unit, killing and capturing two of our fellow soldiers. And literally we have been searching for this guy since our arrival in country, and they turned him over within three weeks of us beginning these operations.
We’ve also had great success as tribal leaders have come to us and worked with this program, and the security situation has changed really for the better. We’re now able to work on projects in the local areas. It helps stimulate the economy on a limited basis, as more people turn their backs on al Qaeda and move to take care of their own people.
With these concerned citizens establishing their own local checkpoints in their own local areas, the roads are now secure. Workers, government of Iraq programs can now move into areas that were previously denied to them by the insurgency.
We’ve had a huge decline in the number of IEDs and attacks against, you know, our forces. You know, the two-week increments, by which we track attacks, where we used to have indirect fire, it was really daily around here. Now, we only get two, at most five, attacks over a two-week period, and our casualties are significantly down. The numbers of IEDs turned in and caches has increased substantially, and we’re able to transit roads that we couldn’t six months ago.
There’s no doubt that some of these concerned citizens were at least tacitly participating in the insurgency before us. But in every counterinsurgency, you’re really struggling for the bulk of the people, and it’s eliminating the terrorists that’s important, and the armed coercion that goes on in these villages after night.
What we’re trying to do is bring a sustainable lasting peace to this area and to date the results have been very favorable, although, really, they’re still tenuous.
And there was a real reluctance at the beginning of this for the legitimate Iraqi security forces to accept what they perceive in their minds as another armed militia running around the country. Likewise, the Sunni volunteers and their tribes viewed the predominantly Shi’a, Iraqi army as under the influence of what they perceive to be an Iraqi or an Iranian-dominated government. But as we have worked with both these groups, we’ve been successful in establishing a relationship.
My Iraqi army leadership led by Brigadier General Ali now goes out and routinely meets with the tribal and security leaders. The division commander, Major General Abdul Amir, the commander of the 6th Iraqi Army Division, and the commander of the Baghdad Operational Command, Lieutenant General Abboud, had both come down and met with these former army officers, security leaders and the tribal sheikhs that have proven to be so critical in this effort. And what we’ve done is really removed this perception of this area being the heart of darkness for al Qaeda in this area.
One of the primary responsibilities that we’ll talk about is the continuing search for our missing soldiers. As you know, on 12 May, a group of terrorists, from what we assessed to have been about 15 to 18 al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents, attacked and overran one of our checkpoints, killed five U.S. soldiers and Iraqi soldiers, and left two others missing. You know, we flooded the area for about six weeks in a detailed search, and continue a more surgical search since then, looking for Specialist Alex Jimenez and Private Byron Fouty. We’ve acquired literally thousands of leads, and we think we’ve developed a pretty good picture of what happened.
Since then, we’ve detained about 12 of the individuals involved in planning and execution of the attack, and in one case, a tribal sheikh ordered one of the perpetrators to turn himself in to us.
We continue to gather information. In fact, I was out in sector today assessing a strike last night that we believe struck at some of the perpetrators, and we believe we have the information that’s going to allow us to bring these perpetrators and other terrorists to justice. This is still our brigade’s number one priority, and we’re working very closely with our higher headquarters, other coalition forces in Iraq, and we know that the Rakkasans will consider the search effort here, you know, after we depart.
I’d like to take this opportunity to tell the families of the members of Specialist Jimenez and Private Fouty that we’ve been doing everything possible to bring them back before we leave, but if it’s not possible, we’re doing what we can to continue the search efforts through all other means possible.
As we noted, or you noted in the intro, this has been a long deployment. Fifteen months is a long time to be deployed. And our soldiers have truly performed extraordinarily. It’s taken its toll, 54 killed or missing and over 270 commandoes wounded in action.
A number of reporters, including Damien Cave, have covered this brigade during its tenure here in south Baghdad and have addressed some of the issues that our soldiers are facing as we draw near to redeployment. We’re working on several levels to prepare not just for the relief in place with the Rakkasans but also the redeployment issues and taking care of our soldiers as we return to Fort Drum.
First of all, we’ve provided training and resources for the chain of command to identify any problems. And I’ve got a great team of behavioral health specialists that are attached to this brigade who work with my soldiers on a daily basis. We’ve also worked with our rear detachment and our Fort Drum subject matter experts to ensure that our soldiers who have already redeployed have been taken care of and we’ll have proper care for our soldiers upon our return.
And then finally, for our families, you know, we’re going to be coming home soon. And commandoes will be trickling back to Fort Drum here in the next month or so, and they’ll get — start enjoying a well-deserved rest, you know, with their families. I’d like to say to them they should be proud of what the commandoes have accomplished here in south Baghdad over the past 15 months.
It’s been an honor to me — for me to soldier with them down here and to command them for these last almost 27 months now, in the 15 months we’ve been here in southwest Baghdad. And you can rest assured that although we’ve had some heavy sacrifice, that our contributions have been significant and that we’re going to leave south Baghdad better than we found it.