By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON (11/10/09) -- A U.S. commander in Baghdad today said all efforts are focused on helping Iraqi forces provide security for upcoming national elections in Iraq.
Army Col. Gregory Lusk, commander of the North Carolina National Guard's 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, joined a chorus of U.S. officials praising the Iraqi Parliament's passage this week of key legislation that paves the way for balloting in January.
"With the recent passing of the election law, Iraq has indeed reached an important milestone," he said by satellite in a Pentagon news conference. "All of our efforts since our day of arrival have been dedicated towards accomplishing this goal and setting the conditions and supporting the Iraqi desires for holding these important elections."
After weeks of debate, Iraqi legislators on Nov. 8 approved a new election law to supersede one put in place in 2005, overcoming earlier hurdles that included disputes over Kurd and Arab political representation in Kirkuk -- part of Iraq's multiethnic northern region.
About 120,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq, with that number expected to decline to roughly 50,000 by the end of July as the U.S. military mission there transitions from combat to stability operations, in accordance with an agreement between Washington and Baghdad.
But even as the 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, which arrived in May, prepares for its eventual redeployment next year, Lusk said the unit is focused on helping Iraq achieve a safe balloting process.
"In conjunction with this historical event, we will also be preparing our soldiers and equipment for our eventual redeployment back to home station," he said. "However, that will not prevent, nor will it hinder us from accomplishing our mission of supporting the elections."
Beyond the election, Lusk said, the brigade will focus on executing a "responsible and honorable" drawdown as it continues its mission to support Iraqi forces in protecting the population.
"As we look ahead at our impending departure and future reduced presence in the southern belts of Iraq, our focus will be to ensure that we execute both a responsible and an honorable withdrawal," he said. "However, in our remaining time here, the 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team will continue to support the government of Iraq in their effort to make the lives of Iraqi people safe, secure and, indeed, prosperous."
Since the U.S. transferred authority to Iraqi security forces July 31, Iraqis have taken the lead in detaining hundreds of insurgents, including key insurgent leaders, financiers and car-bomb manufacturers, Lusk said.
"This fruitful and productive relationship with our Iraqi security force partners has resulted in the reduction of capabilities for al-Qaida in Iraq operating within our operating environment, as well as the reduction in capacity of former 'special groups' and other rejectionists," he said, noting a reduction of bombings and other high-profile attacks since May.
Lusk estimated that by the time the unit redeploys next year, soldiers in his brigade will have committed to more than 200 civilian works projects totaling about $20 million, with $1 million targeting independent business owners in the Iraqi capital.