CAMP AL QAIM, Iraq, June 9, 2006 - The security situation in Iraq is like a relay race. Coalition forces have the baton for the first leg. They pass it to the Iraqi army, who in turn pass the baton to the Iraqi police.
In Anbar province, the race is a bit slower than in other portions of Iraq. But progress is being made.
Training the Iraqi security forces is the most important mission for coalition personnel, who realize that capable security forces will quicken their return home. Iraqi soldiers and police understand this and are very receptive to coalition efforts.
And the enemy understands the importance of capable Iraqi forces. Government forces able to provide security will go a long way to establishing prosperity in the country. One of the enemy's targets has been Iraqi army recruiting stations and Iraqi police stations. The enemy has killed many Iraqi soldiers and police. Yet, Iraqi men continue to volunteer to serve.
The insurgency is tough here in the "Wild West" of Iraq. Anti-Iraqi forces are mostly locals, and people protect them. Residents view the government in Baghdad as not representative of their views. And some in Anbar province see the insurgents as attacking an occupying power, with tribal leaders often giving tacit support and under-the-table aid to the insurgents. There is some hope that the new government will overcome this perception.
Terrorist groups like al Qaeda in Iraq see the province as a haven as they seek to exploit and enlarge the Sunni/Shiia divide in the country.
And all groups in the region are maneuvering to be the power in a vacuum.
The strategy the coalition and the Iraqi government has in place also deals with the security situation in the province. Coalition troops launch operations to maintain security and to buy time to train the Iraqi army. All along the Western Euphrates River Valley, U.S. soldiers and Marines patrol and engage the enemy, and carve out some breathing room to train their replacements: the Iraqi army.
The IA - as it is known out here - is taking shape and taking form. Coalition units partner with the IA and military transition teams - military advisers - work and live with their Iraqi counterparts at company, battalion, brigade and division levels.
Most Iraqi army soldiers come from outside the province. The unit in Hit, Iraq, comes from the south - around Najaf. A local officer commands the brigade here, but most of the soldiers come from the Baghdad area. While there is some recruiting in the province, the response has been tepid, officials said.
The Iraqi soldiers in Anbar work in squad and section strength and are training to operate as platoons and companies.
Benefits are already accruing. Iraqi soldiers do not have to learn the culture of the country because they are a part of it. They speak the same language as the population and they can recognize when something or someone is out of place, officials said. As they become better trained, they will take the lead, allowing coalition troops - in this area, primarily Americans - to step back and serve in an overwatch capacity.
The IA units are making good progress and officials here expect them to be in the lead in the next few months. Coalition forces will continue to advise the IA and will provide air support, medical evacuations, certain logistical help and advice.
When the Iraqi army takes the baton from coalition forces, they will buy time to train the Iraqi police, the keystone in security in the region and the country.
Police come from the communities. The cop on the beat knows the people as individuals and understands their wants and fears. Police stations are in their neighborhoods and should be places that serve as focal points of security.
And that is part of the problem out here. Local men are loathe to volunteer to serve in the Iraqi army, let alone the Iraqi police. Insurgents target soldiers and their families. Soldiers - even those who serve far away from their homes - protect their identities. By their very nature, police must be known to those they serve. Villagers must know "Officer Achmed" and feel free to speak with him.
But this leaves the officer and his family open to murder.
Still, men are volunteering for the police. Equipment is coming into the region and in some cities and towns the police are striking out on their own to provide security.
Coalition and Iraqi officials have decreed 2006 to be "the year of the police." This does not mean that all police security challenges will be met this year, officials said, but they will have a good start.
Coalition officials in Baghdad said the strategy is moving forward. In many places in the country, Iraqi units already have their own battle space, with just a few American advisers. In others, Iraqi battalions are in the lead. And even here in Anbar, Iraqi soldiers want to defend their country and people. The coalition is passing the baton to the Iraqi army, officials said.
The next stage -- setting up the Iraqi police -- will be more complex, but will seal the victory against terrorism and the insurgency. It is all a matter of time and will.