Over There

By John Liang / September 25, 2008 at 5:00 AM

One of the U.S. military's ground commanders today confirmed that violence has gone down in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, and said a good deal of the oversight of the "Sons of Iraq" militia groups that have helped keep the peace has been transferred to the Iraqi government.

Yet another thing to think about as the two presidential candidates debate what to do over there.

Army Col. Todd McCaffrey, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, told reporters in a teleconference briefing earlier today that enemy attacks in his brigade's area of responsibility were down more than 74 percent since his team's arrival last December, and more than 500 percent compared to the same time frame last year.

"While IEDs remain the enemy's principal method of attack, we've seen them become less and less effective due to the continuing disintegration of enemy cells and the erosion of their resources," he said, adding that indirect fire attacks had decreased by more than 94 percent since the 2nd BCT's arrival. Direct fire attacks, "which were really never a significant source of enemy activity in our area, are down more than 80 percent," he said.

Overall, McCaffrey said security his area had "vastly improved as the result of the great work of our soldiers and their increasingly confident and capable partners, the Iraqi security forces."

The Sons of Iraq program, formerly known as the Concerned Local Citizens, is a group of former insurgents now working alongside and being paid by coalition forces.

More than 13,000 Sons of Iraq are manning checkpoints and providing local security to their towns and villages in McCaffrey's AOR, the colonel said. "They've been doing this for over a year now. These men's sacrifice and commitment to ridding their areas of al Qaeda and other insurgent elements have been critical to the improved security situation the Iraqis in our operating environment enjoy today."

In recent weeks, coalition forces have transferred nearly 97 percent of the payroll for the Sons of Iraq in McCaffrey's area to Iraqi army oversight with few problems, the colonel said.

The Commanders Emergency Response Program, known as CERP, has been used to fund the Sons of Iraq. CERP has come under congressional scrutiny in recent months, with lawmakers charging the Defense Department is mismanaging the effort, as Inside the Pentagon reported in June:

. . . The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on accountability lapses in funds associated with Iraq on May 22.

The Defense Department's Inspector General indicated in a recent report that the Pentagon made $135 million in payments to foreign governments under CERP but there is no audit trail, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) said.

According to the report, $21 million was given to South Korea, $68 million to the United Kingdom and $45 million to Poland.

Moreover, last year DOD began using CERP funds to finance bulk payments to local Iraqi tribal leaders under the Sons of Iraq, persuading insurgents to stop battling coalition forces, McCollum said. The Pentagon now wants to boost the program to $370 million in fiscal year 2008, which is "a huge ramp-up" for an effort that did not exist a year ago, she charged.

"If we think it helps reduce violence in Iraq, then the Iraqi government should be excited about the reduction and they should pay for it," she said. "And, after all, we now know that the Iraqi government has $70 billion in reserves. They should be paying for their own security."

Defense analyst Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, was more blunt.

"Nothing new here," Wheeler told ITP about the controversy around CERP. "Thanks to DOD failure -- for decades -- to be able to track its own money, it ends up in unintended hands. This is only one small fallout from DOD's refusal to have accounts the auditors can track and trace.

"Congress will, of course, be horrified and then proceed to hold absolutely no one accountable," he said. "Put this statement into a rubber stamp; you will be able to use it for years," he said.