Saturday, September 6, 2008

Brigade’s leader sees a light at the end of tunnel


Attacks in eastern Baghdad are down to an average of one per day.

It's been several days since the soldiers of Fort Carson's 3rd Brigade Combat Team were hit.

The shaped-charged explosives Shiite extremists used to import from Iran have become rare as leaders of the Sadr City insurgent groups have fled after an American offensive.

It's enough to make Col. John Hort optimistic the war in Iraq is winding down for U.S. troops.

"We can bring victory," the unit's commander said in a satellite news conference Friday from his headquarters near Sadr City. "My goal is to make this the last deployment for this brigade."

Hort said he can foresee troops pulling out of Baghdad as soon as next summer if the upswing continues.

Four months ago, Hort wasn't so sure there would be an end to the fighting.

A Shiite uprising targeted his brigade and Iraqi army units with scores of daily attacks.

He moved his troops in heavily armored tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles and fought a six-week campaign to retake the Shiite slums, killing more than 700 insurgents and capturing 300.

Hort said the battle broke the back of the Shiite militia and forced its leaders to flee.

"They are no longer powerful," Hort said.

With the Iraqi army presence burgeoning in Sadr City, the Americans have been able to cut the number of troops in eastern Baghdad from more than 4,000 soldiers around Sadr City to half that now.

Hort remains cautious - past successes in Iraq have too frequently preceded spectacular relapses.

His soldiers are looking for an al-Qaida sniper who has been moving through Baghdad's neighborhoods, taking aim at soldiers. One member of the brigade's 3rd Battalion 29th Field Artillery Battalion died in an Aug. 25 sniper attack.

"We still have a lot of work," he said.

One sign of the turnaround, Hort said, is the tearing down of walls that separate Baghdad's neighborhoods.

The Army walled off Baghdad nearly block by block to stop insurgents from moving around. Now, Hort said, more and more openings are being cut into the barriers, and some walls are even coming down as Baghdad recovers from fighting that followed the 2007 surge of American troops.

Some stumbling blocks to an American withdrawal remain, Hort said.

More Iraqi soldiers and police are needed to patrol Baghdad's streets instead of U.S. soldiers.

Another worry is getting Iraqi government money flowing into the city's eastern neighborhoods for rebuilding and creating jobs.

The brigade has plowed $40 million into improvements in Sadr City, from opening a public pool to rebuilding schools. But the Iraqi government needs to get in the driver's seat with dinars instead of dollars footing the bill, he said.

"The Iraqi dinar is starting to flow in the city more and more."

Hort will get to see if his hopes for Baghdad become realities.

The 3,800-soldier brigade will be there through February.

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