ISKANDARIYAH, Iraq (AP) – When the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division arrived in Iraq’s once infamous “Triangle of Death,” violence there and in neighboring Baghdad was so intense that hundreds were dying every day and the country was virtually in a state of civil war.
Now as the division heads home at the end of May, the region stretching south from Baghdad and across central Iraq has become a showcase for what the U.S. military hoped to achieve in Iraq.
“When we first arrived here 15 months ago there was nothing but sectarian violence, al-Qaida, Shiite extremists,” the division commander Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said as he wrapped up a tour of an industrial complex.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and U.S. officials are likely to tout successes like that here during a U.N. conference that begins Thursday in Sweden, aimed at reviewing political and security progress in Iraq. The gathering will also see pressure on Iraqi leaders to make similar movement on political goals, such as reconciliation between the country’s Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
The U.S. military says violence across Iraq has reached its lowest level in more than four years after successes this year in breaking al-Qaida’s and other Sunni insurgents’ hold in western Iraq and, more recently, government crackdowns in the southern city of Basra and northern city of Mosul.
But the success in the Triangle of Death, centered on the town of Iskandariyah, is perhaps the most dramatic. The area’s population is mixed between Sunnis and Shiites to a far greater degree than many others, and in 2006 and 2007 militants from each community were killing each other, as well as attacking U.S. and Iraqi forces.
The area has boomeranged to become a bastion of relative peace on the edge of a violent capital, while Sunni militants remain elusive in the north.
One likely reason for the greater success is the logistical support from being close to Baghdad. Mosul, where a major Iraqi military campaign is under way against al-Qaida, is 225 miles northwest of the capital, compared to the 30 miles between Baghdad and Iskandariyah.
Another is the division’s success recruiting members of the so-called Awakening Councils, Sunni groups who turned against al-Qaida in Iraq after the terror group began imposing draconian measures to enforce religious discipline in neighborhoods they controlled throughout the Triangle of Death. There are about 36,000 Awakening Council members on the payroll.
A third is a cease-fire ordered last August by radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia is present in the region far more than areas north of Baghdad. Battalion commanders in the field also point to new counterinsurgency strategies, where units clear an area of fighters and stay to hold it from slipping back into insurgent hands.
Sunni fighters who swarmed the area are also nearly gone. They have either been killed, or co-opted into Awakening Councils, said Lt. Col. William Zemp, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment based in nearby Mahmoudiya.
“It was a place where they could consolidate, make plans and be put into action,” Zemp said. “We have effectively shut that down.”
The result is predominantly Shiite areas along the main corridors north into Baghdad.
Most recently, the farmlands south of Baghdad were flooded with U.S. soldiers, and areas once controlled by a single battalion of under 1,000 soldiers are now the responsibility of a brigade of 3,500.
The cigar-smoking Lynch has become a recognizable figure in Iskandariyah. The general often walks the narrow streets of its marketplace, which shows new signs of prosperity amid the greater calm.
Shortly after the 3rd ID arrived, its 20,000 soldiers launched large military operations to quash al-Qaida cells and Shiite militias.
“We focused on establishing security in this area of Iskandariyah, and now that we have the security right, we had to worry about the most pressing need of the people, and that was employment,” Lynch said.
Violence in the area, where U.S. troops once traveled only in large numbers, has plunged by 89 percent since last year, according to the military. Mortar and rocket attacks are largely a thing of the past, though some suicide bombings continue, it said.
“I just don’t see sectarian violence anymore,” Lynch said. “In our area, people kept talking about Sunni versus Shiite. I don’t see that now. Everywhere I go, people identify themselves as Iraqi. That is their identification, I am not Shiite, I’m not Sunni, I’m Iraqi.”
Lynch and his officers knew they did not have the resources to jump-start the region’s economy, so instead they focused on a variety of ventures, a vocational school, the industrial plant and smaller projects such as fish farming.
“Do you remember what this place used to look like 15 months ago?” Sabbah al-Khaffaji, who runs the industrial plant and sits on the city council, asked Lynch. “We hope that the next time, you can come without guns.”
Al-Khaffaji’s plant, which last year employed a couple hundred people on an intermittent basis, now has nearly 3,000 workers. It has contracts worth more than US$6 million.
The vocational school had fewer than 500 students just six months ago; it now has about 1,500, learning generator maintenance, metal work, sewing and other skills needed by the local economy. But Lynch warns that the fight has not been fully won. “This is a tenuous security situation,” Lynch said. “The enemy could indeed come back, the people could become dissatisfied with their government and as a result could revert back to old ways of doing business.”