WASHINGTON, Oct. 15, 2008 – The work of nearly 30 provincial reconstruction teams deployed in Iraq is paramount to achieving success in that country, President Bush said at the White House today. “PRTs are vital to the success of our missions; this administration strongly supports them,” Bush told assembled officials in the Roosevelt Room, before receiving an video-teleconferenced update on the PRT mission in Iraq provided by officials from Baghdad.

Bush was joined at the White House meeting by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen and other senior officials.

Staffed by specialists from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. military and other governmental and nongovernmental agencies, PRTs assist Iraqi officials in setting up governance and economics systems — looking to the repair or replacement of vital infrastructure such as roads and schools, and providing key municipal needs such as water, electricity, and sewage treatment.

U.S. military units work alongside PRTs in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide security and other services. The PRT concept is an example of interoperability between U.S. agencies, which senior White House, State Department and Pentagon leaders view as an effective way to prosecute the war on global terrorism.

Bush first heard from U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker, who was accompanied in Baghdad by Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, and a group of military and civilian leaders representing some Iraq-based PRTs.

The PRT program, Crocker told Bush, “is one of our most important vehicles” for achieving political and economic development in Iraq. There are now 27 PRTs operating across Iraq’s 18 provinces, Crocker said, and three provincial support teams.

As insurgent violence continues on a downward spiral, Iraqi citizens in his area of operations “have expressed an almost unanimous satisfaction” for the improved security conditions, said Dan Foote, a U.S. State Department employee who leads the PRT in southern Iraq’s Maysan province. With increased security and stability, “economic and construction activity have increased visibly” in Maysan province, Foote told the president.

The Iraqi soldiers conducting most of the security in Maysan province continue to improve, said Army Col. Philip Battaglia, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team. A 1,800-soldier detachment from the 4th BCT works closely with Foote’s PRT in Maysan province, Battaglia said. Insurgent attacks in his sector have ticked up slightly in recent weeks, he said, as the insurgents apparently are trying to recover some of their former sanctuaries.

Battaglia praised the growing capabilities of the 10th Iraqi Army Division soldiers who partner with his troops. The people in southern Iraq trust the Iraqi army, the colonel said. Though corruption has sapped the effectiveness of some local Iraqi police units, senior Iraqi police leaders and U.S. officials are working together to correct that, he added.

Up north in Baghdad’s Sadr City section, things are getting better every day, said Theodore H. Andrews, a U.S. State Department employee and leader of Baghdad’s embedded PRT-3. Andrews’ PRT services Baghdad’s Sadr City and Adhamiyah districts, and it is supported by the 4th Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, commanded by Army Col. John Hort.

The violence that existed just a few months ago meant “we could hardly go anywhere in Sadr City,” Andrews recalled. The cease-fire signed by formerly warring sectarian groups has brought relative peace to Sadr City today, he said.

“There are still some bad actors” that sometimes attack local Iraqi government buildings and personnel, Andrews acknowledged. But, overall, he said, things are improving, as health clinics and schools are opened and vital municipal services such as water are being restored.

“I think we are on the right path now,” Andrews said. The upcoming Iraqi provincial and general elections, he said, should “strengthen the feedback loop” between Iraqi citizens and their elected leaders.

Hort echoed Andrews’ optimism. Sadr City has calmed down greatly, he said, since the end of sectarian-militia-generated fighting in and around Sadr City that occurred in March through May.

“We have seen a huge reduction in attacks; security has gone up exponentially across the board” in Sadr City, Hort said. Violence has decreased about 90 percent, he said, citing a greatly reduced incidence of roadside-bomb and armor-piercing-projectile attacks, and the near-cessation of rocket assaults.

Today, Sadr City vendors now peacefully ply their trades at area marketplaces without worry of violence or extortion by various criminal groups, Hort said.

“The Iraqi army is in control of Sadr City,” Hort said, noting four Iraqi infantry battalions patrol and provide security for the area.

The Iraqi soldiers patrolling Baghdad today have greater confidence in themselves, Hort said. They also “recognize, now, that the militia is not this big, bad, boogeyman out there,” he said. The Iraqi troops know that the militia can be engaged and defeated, he said, just as al-Qaida was defeated and pushed out of Baghdad during the surge.

Meanwhile, the decreased violence has enabled work on schools, roads and other needed infrastructure projects, Hort said.

Andrews’ and Hort’s reports on the dramatically decreased violence in Sadr City describe “a different story than we used to hear,” Bush said.

“I can remember Sadr City being on our radar screen in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, … [and] basically given up for hopeless,” Bush said. “And, now, it’s been transformed for the good of the country. So, congratulations all for your good work.”

The Ninevah provincial reconstruction team in northern Iraq was the first one erected, in 2005, Crocker said. The Ninevah region, he said, includes the city of Mosul and is home to “some of our toughest challenges” in Iraq, which include terrorists, sectarian and ethnic issues and persistent drought.

However, Crocker said, U.S., coalition and Iraqi authorities are now partnering with the United Nations assistance mission in Iraq to combat those challenges.

“It’s a significant step forward in ensuring a full coherence and coordination of effort” during reconstruction efforts in northern Iraq, Crocker said.

Progress in Ninevah province, about the size of Maryland, has been slight, and it pales when compared to other areas of Iraq, Ninevah PRT leader and State Department employee Alex Laskaris said.

Ninevah province’s lack of progress is “due to continued instability, poor governance, serious drought, unemployment, lack of rule of law,” Laskaris said, as well as the political marginalization of Sunni Arab residents. The Sunnis boycotted the first democratic Iraqi elections in 2005 following the fall of Saddam Hussein, who was a Sunni.

“To begin to address some of these deep issues, we’re trying to mobilize a national constituency for Ninevah province,” Laskaris said. “By engaging the Sunni Arab political leadership from Baghdad, we see Ninevah as an untapped base of potential support for the elections.” In fact, he said, Ninevah had the highest rate of voter registration in July.

Laskaris also said he plans to work with senior Iraqi government officials “o “jump start” needed renovation projects for Mosul, including sewage, electricity, education, short-term employment generation and other services.

Some of Ninevah’s problems are not man-made, Laskaris said. The region, he said, is having its third successive year of a severe drought that has caused massive crop failures in wheat and barley and devastated the province’s sheep herd.

To help combat the drought, seeds for new crops provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are now being distributed to Iraqi agricultural associations by the PRT’s military partner, the U.S. 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, Laskaris said.

“I think it’s a way to the future for how we want to address some of these issues,” Laskaris said.

Despite a more than 50-percent reduction in attacks in Ninevah province since 2006, the province remains one of the most violent areas in Iraq, said Army Lt. Col. Robert J. Molinari, commander of the 3rd ACR, which partners with Laskaris’ PRT.

Most of the insurgents’ attacks involve small-arms fire or roadside bombs, Molinari said. The American soldiers, he said, conduct daily dismounted patrols and raids with their Iraqi counterparts to detain al-Qaida suspects and seize enemy munitions caches.

Molinari said he and his soldiers are improving relations with Iraqi soldiers and police to help further stem the violence, while other initiatives are geared toward helping Iraqi officials provide residents with needed services.

That all takes money, which is the specialty of U.S. Treasury Department employee Ged Smith, who is the U.S. Treasury attache at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Smith, who has been posted in Baghdad since 2007, came to Washington for consultations. He and some former Iraq PRT leaders joined Bush and other senior officials to listen in on the teleconference.

Smith told Bush that Iraqi government funding for reconstruction and other purposes increased from $23 billion in 2006, to $27 billion in 2007. Iraqi spending next year is expected to reach $45 billion to $50 billion, Smith said.

At the end of the teleconference, Bush met briefly with reporters to discuss the PRT’s contribution to the mission in Iraq.

“We are having success in Iraq,” Bush told reporters. “And one of the main reasons why is we’re implementing an innovative strategy that combines our military with civilian enterprise to help people at the grassroots level build a society that will lay the foundation for peace.”

Bush praised the military and civilian PRT members. America, he said, “is fortunate to have courageous souls volunteer to help develop an ally in the war against extremists, to develop a democracy in a part of the world where a lot of people said democracy could never flourish; and secondly, that we are implementing a strategy in the provinces which is effective.”

U.S. military members and civilians in the PRTs are “constantly looking at ways to make sure that we remain effective,” Bush said.

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