WASHINGTON -- A strong partnership with coalition forces is improving the capability of Iraqi security forces and encouraging political development in Iraq's Anbar province, the area's top commander said today.
About 10,000 Iraqi soldiers are in the province, all at various stages of readiness, said Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Stephen Johnson, commander of Multinational Force West and 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward). These forces have played an increasingly important role in security operations and are gaining valuable experience by fighting with coalition forces, he said.
"They've been into combat with our forces, side by side," he said. "They fought bravely; they fought effectively; and they bled for their own country."
Anbar is the largest province in Iraq and includes the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. U.S. forces have seen some of their toughest fighting in this province, including the November 2004 battle for Fallujah.
Since the Fallujah battle, that city has made considerable progress and is returning to normalcy, Johnson said. The population is at about 150,000; commerce is returning; reconstruction efforts are under way; and schools are open, he explained. Reports of insurgents returning to Fallujah are to be expected, he said, because it has become a symbol for the insurgents since their defeat there.
"Fallujah was the site of a crushing defeat for them," he said. "It's also a symbol for the Iraqi people of success and progress, and that's what the insurgents want to take away."
There are now close to 400 police operating in Fallujah, and the coalition continues to support the Iraqis' efforts to establish security there, he said.
Additional police are being trained and deployed throughout the province, including along the border with Syria, Johnson said. It is challenging to control the border because it is so large, he said, but coalition forces are assisting the Iraqis in training forces and constructing border forts.
The political situation in the area also is improving, Johnson said, with not only Anbar but also its neighboring provinces of Karbala and Najaf boasting active elected councils. These councils are stepping forward and taking part in reconstruction efforts and the growth process, he said.
"These municipalities are seeking political solutions to their problem," he said. "Iraqis are feeling more and more empowered to take their place in this new nation."
Johnson said he expects a high voter turnout for the upcoming referendum and elections. Political, tribal and religious leaders have been urging people to vote, and the people are gaining more confidence in the interim government and the security forces, he said.
"That confidence translates into willingness to vote," he said.
The significant progress in the Anbar area is being helped along by the Iraqis' attitudes and spirit, Johnson said, and that is what gives him confidence for the future.
"The people of the region are getting very tired of the violence, the intimidation, the murder and those things that are brought to them by the insurgents," he said. "They want something better."