WASHINGTON, Dec. 7, 2011 — As the final U.S. military convoys roll out of Iraq these next three weeks, marking the end of eight years of operations, Americans can be proud of the work service members did there, U.S. Forces Iraq’s deputy commanding general said today.
In USFI’s final news briefing from Baghdad, Army Lt. Gen. Frank G. Helmick told the Pentagon press corps that Americans and Iraqis will have different opinions about whether Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn “were worth it.”
“From where I sit, it was,” Helmick said.
It was because of the U.S. military role that the country held historic elections in March 2010, giving Iraq “the opportunity for a sovereign future,” the general said. And, he added, violence is at an eight-year low.
Helmick said his beliefs are underscored by the positive comments of some wounded warriors and family members of the fallen, which totals more than 4,500 U.S. service members.
“My firm belief is that there is no other military in the world that can do what yours did in Iraq,” he said. “For eight years, they have been building and securing this country.”
U.S. troops’ greatest legacy in Iraq, Helmick said, is in the professionalism, confidence and esprit de corps of the Iraqi security forces.
“We gave 28 million Iraqis the greatest gift anyone can give and that is their freedom,” he said.
Helmick marked the historic occasion by calling the veterans of Iraq operations the next “Greatest Generation,” a reference to those who served in World War II.
“The significance of this day doesn’t escape me,” the general said on the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. For their service in Iraq, he said, “America discovered the next greatest generation.”
“Words cannot begin to express the pride I feel about America’s military performance and service in Iraq,” he added.
The 18-month process of drawing down forces in Iraq “is simply historic,” going from 300,000 service members and more than 5,000 installations in 2007 to 8,000 troops and five bases today, Helmick said. Military drivers have logged 16 million miles, “moving a mountain of equipment and personnel,” mostly through southern Iraq and into Kuwait, and have fewer than 1,000 truckloads left, he said.
U.S. forces built the Iraqi security forces to more than 700,000, trained them, and left them with “some of the best [equipment] we have,” including the M1 Abrams tank and artillery equipment, the general said. U.S. forces also were in charge of the country’s security until 2010 when Iraqi forces took the lead.
Every piece of U.S. military equipment “goes through an agonizing process” of determining whether it should be shipped out of the country or left for the Iraqis, Helmick said. The U.S. military has incurred significant savings in transportation costs by leaving equipment, namely office furniture, in Iraq, he said.
Iraq still has challenges, Helmick said, including continued threats from al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, Iranian meddling, and internal ethnic tensions.
Iraq has made good progress on police work, the general said, and is capable of securing the country internally, if not externally.
“The Iraqis understand they have a security gap if someone comes into their air space who doesn’t want to be seen,” he said.
Whether or not the Iraqis choose a future U.S. military role in security is up to them, the general said.
“The sense I get from the Iraqis is that they want to have a strong relationship with our country,” he said.
Asked about the military’s “lessons learned” in Iraq, Helmick said, “We performed, really, beyond expectations.”
Early on, the general said, service members in Iraq had to do things they weren’t necessarily trained to do. They weren’t very good at advising Iraqi farmers on wheat crops, “but we did that,” or in helping with the oil refinery and distribution processes, “but we did that,” he said.
“The military had to branch out through all the different portions of the government sector because, at that time, there was no one to pass the ball off to,” Helmick said.
U.S. operations in Iraq later became the example of how best to synchronize military and civilian actions, Helmick said. Americans serving in Iraq learned about the country’s culture and enabled the Iraqis to create a system of security and governance for themselves, he said, rather than a template of how things are done in the United States.
As for Iraq’s future security, Helmick said, “We really don’t know what is going to happen, but we know we’ve done everything we can for the Iraqi security forces.”
Asked if the Iraqis are capable of doing their part to keep U.S. State Department employees and contractors safe when they take over the U.S. role there Jan. 1, the general said, “My gut tells me they will be capable to do this — they’re doing it today.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)