Today President Bush made his first trip to Rhode Island, to speak at the Naval War College regarding the war in Iraq. With the final elements of the surge having arrived in Iraq just a few weeks ago, Operation Phantom Thunder has begun. The president highlighted the successes so far:
Last September, Anbar was all over the news. It was held up as an example of America's failure in Iraq. The papers cited a leaked intelligence report that was pessimistic about our prospects there. One columnist summed it up this way: "The war is over in Anbar province, and the United States lost."
About the same time some folks were writing off Anbar, our troops were methodically clearing Anbar's capital city of Ramadi of terrorists, and winning the trust of the local population. In parallel with these efforts, a group of tribal sheiks launched a movement called "The Awakening" -- and began cooperating with American and Iraqi forces. These sheiks, these leaders were tired of murder and tired of mayhem that al Qaeda had brought to their towns and communities. They knew exactly who these folks were.
To capitalize on this opportunity, I sent more Marines into Anbar. And gradually they have been helping the locals take back their province from al Qaeda.
These operations are showing good results. Our forces are going into parts of Anbar where they couldn't operate before. With the help of Iraqi and coalition forces, local Sunni tribes have driven al Qaeda from most of Ramadi -- and attacks there are now down to a two-year low. Recruiting of Iraqi police forces now draws thousands of candidates, compared to a few hundred just a few months ago. This month, Anbar opened its first police academy. And as the slide shows, overall attacks in Anbar are sharply down from this time last year...
To the north of Baghdad, our forces have surged into Diyala province. The primary focus is the provincial capital of Baqubah, which is just an hour's car ride from Baghdad. There, masked gunmen enforce their brutal rule with prisons and torture chambers and punish crimes like smoking.
In one building, our forces discovered a medical facility for the terrorists that tells us the enemy was preparing itself for a sustained and deadly fight. They had burrowed in. There was no resistance. They were trying to export their violence to the capital. Iraqi and American troops are now fighting block by block. The colonel leading the assault says we have denied al Qaeda a major bastion. The city is cleared. The challenge, of course, is going to be for coalition and Iraqi forces to keep it that way. But we're making progress in Operation Phantom Thunder....
Today I had the opportunity to speak with Ambassador Larry Butler, deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs at State Department, about the progress of Operation Phantom Thunder. (McQ did as well.) Like the president, Butler stressed the success to date in Anbar, which has been largely deserted by Al Qaeda leading to a dramatic drop in attacks. He also talked about the increased ability of Iraqi troops to 'pull their weight,' mentioning the three brigades sent by President Maliki to work with U.S. troops in Sadr City.
Butler spent some time discussing the Provincial Reconstruction Teams--the military/civilian outreach teams whose work with 'ordinary Iraqis' is key both to rebuilding Iraq and increasing trust in the US. The positive experience with the PRTs and their good work has led to a doubling of the number of teams operating in Iraq, with more still to follow. It's also expected that the teams themselves will expand from units of four people to units of between ten and 20, 'leveraging' the power of the United States to make a difference in Iraq.
All-in-all, Butler stressed the promise of Operation Phantom Thunder to bring Iraq back from the brink.