Before the surge, fewer than 100 U.S. troops patrolled the area known as the Madain qadha, leaving an area about the size of the Capital Beltway ripe for insurgent activities that made their way into Baghdad.
Army Col. Wayne Grigsby and his 3,500 soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade deployed to the region in March as the third of five surge brigades, with orders to block the flow of weapons, bombs and insurgents into Baghdad. Area residents are about two-thirds Shiite and one-third Sunni. About 1.2 million people live in its major cities.
"(Extremist) strongholds are no longer as strong as they used to be in the Madain qadha," Grigsby said today, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon via satellite. "As a matter of fact, ... they're basically on the run right now."
The additional troops allowed the commanders to set up outposts and keep troops in the communities they cleared. Before, troops drove from a forward operating base in Baghdad to patrol the region and then returned at the end of their missions.
Grigsby's forces have now set up a forward operating base, two patrol bases, four combat outposts and three joint security sites, all in the major population centers within the Madain qadha. The constant community presence has made the difference in the shift in the security situation, Grigsby said.
"We don't drive or commute to work," Grigsby said. "We live in the towns with the people that we are here to help. We walk to work."
As an example of progress, the commander cited Nahrawan, a town of about 100,000 that used to be a Shiite extremist sanctuary. Now it is a thriving community with a new clinic and a marketplace, he said. Also, because of the security gains, contractors are more willing to work in the area. They are improving roads and working to improve water flow, critical to the agriculturally oriented region.
By December, Grigsby reported a two-year low for murders in the region. Murders in 2007 dropped to 232, from 631 in 2006 and 355 in 2005.
Two national police brigades now operate in the region, as well as more than 6,000 Sons of Iraq, formerly called concerned local citizens, within the Madain quadha. More than 500 of the Sons of Iraq have put in their packets to become Iraqi police, Grigsby said.
Now, the final trouble spot is Salman Pak, a town of about 300,000 about 15 miles south of Baghdad, Grigsby said.
"This area used to be a resort town where Baathist Party and Iraqi army leaders would go get away from the bustle of Baghdad. As we began our deployment, Salman Pak was strangled by extremist influence," Grigsby said.
Recent operations in the area have resulted in 149 enemy fighter deaths and more than 500 suspects detained. Troops have cleared 164 bombs, seized 89 weapons caches, destroyed 170 boats and 3,000 buildings, and searched 13,000 vehicles, Grigsby said.
An additional battalion of soldiers from the former Soviet republic of Georgia are partnering with Grigsby's units and will help expand his reach, he said.
Still, the colonel said, the progress is not irreversible, and a U.S. brigade is scheduled to fall in on the territory once Grigsby's brigade finishes its tour. The troop levels are needed to continue developing the infrastructure, government and economy there, he said.