BAGHDAD — It seemed like another routine trip as the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq boarded his helicopter in Amara, where a battalion of U.S. troops is based. Only two months ago, however, the smuggling hub on the Iranian border was a stronghold of Shiite Muslim militants, a place that no American general without a death wish would visit.
The climate has changed, said Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III.
President Bush cited the reduced violence, as well as his belief that conditions in Iraq finally are turning around, at a hastily called news briefing Thursday in which he promised "further reductions in our combat forces, as conditions permit."
"The progress is still reversible," Bush acknowledged. "There now appears to be a degree of durability in gains."
"I think we're getting things right most of the time now," Austin told McClatchy on a Blackhawk en route to Diwaniyah, another one-time Shiite militant stronghold. Amara isn't friendly territory yet, but it's home to a U.S. base and five smaller combat outposts. "Our footprint of activity now extends from Mosul to Basra," Austin said, describing the improved freedom of action.
In the six months since Austin took command, five "surge" brigades of additional U.S. troops have been withdrawn, civilian deaths have hit an all-time low, according to The Brookings Institution as of July 17, a center-left Washington policy institute, and in July the U.S. suffered the lowest monthly death toll since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 — 13 people, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count.
According to the commanding general of day-to-day operations of the war, Iraq hasn't yet reached the point of "sustainable security." Many in the leaders of al Qaida in Iraq have departed, as have militant Shiite leaders, who're now believed to be hiding in Iran. But they don't plan to stay abroad, Austin said.
"If the leadership returns and you have a couple of major attacks, things could reverse," he said referring to al Qaida in Iraq. "I think they are in disarray, quite frankly, but they are still capable of attacks. The guidance I give my commanders is to not get complacent and to make sure we continue to take these capabilities from them."
Iraq isn't at peace, though. This week, dozens of civilians were killed and more than 200 were wounded in three suicide blasts in Iraq's capital and the oil rich northern city of Kirkuk. That's the challenge Austin faces: With fewer U.S. troops available, he has to drive down violence with fewer men while Iraq continues to work on economic recovery and political progress.
Since Austin assumed his position, Iraqi Security Forces have taken the lead in four major military operations, including Basra, Amara and now the restive Diyala province. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has gained popular support from Sunnis for taking on Shiite militias and has been pushing for a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal.
The Iraqi government, however, still needs to pass key legislation, including oil revenue sharing, provincial elections and constitutional amendments.
The strength and capabilities of Iraqi Security Forces are growing and their sectarian loyalties are dwindling, Austin said. But the Iraqi Army still lacks the ability to plan more than one to two days ahead for combat operations. They also lack key "combat enablers" such as engineers, combat medics, surveillance mechanisms and a viable air force, Austin said. Iraqi Brigades often come to a halt when Iraqi generals are unavailable because lower-ranking officers aren't authorized to make decisions, Austin's men told him in Amara.
"As we're fighting, we need to train, enable, mentor and advise our Iraqi counterparts," he said, estimating that elements of the Iraqi Security Forces will need two years to be sufficiently independent. "No doubt over time we will be in an advisory role, but you can't flip a switch and then today we're in combat and tomorrow we're advisors."
The war isn't over, said the general who pushed into Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry Division in 2003, but it's a "war that is in transition."
"When you're going into a dark room at midnight and you know that someone on the other side wants to kill you, it's a war. When you have a mother who receives her son in a coffin, it's a war," he said.
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