The sharp drop in violence across Iraq in the past year has positioned the country for a new kind of boom -- an economic one -- said a Fort Bragg-based general who is serving as a deputy commander of day-to-day operations in Iraq.
Small businesses and co-ops are beginning to thrive, new shops open daily, and representatives of foreign companies are visiting to check out the possibilities, said Brig. Gen. Michael Ferriter, who is a deputy commander of the 18th Airborne Corps for operations.
"There's great potential in the months ahead because of the security improvements for the economy to take off like a rocket ship," he said in a telephone interview from Camp Victory in Baghdad.
Realizing that potential will depend on U.S. and Iraqi forces' success in continuing to suppress violence, which will still be a problem for a while, Ferriter said.
He and several hundred other soldiers of Bragg's 18th Airborne Corps are serving a stint as the heart of Multi-National Corps Iraq, which oversees tactical operations across the country. The Multi-National Corps is under the command of Ferriter's boss, 18th Corps and Fort Bragg commander Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin.
'Return to normalcy'
The Bragg soldiers began their 15-month rotation early this year, about the same time as the U.S. troop buildup that began a year earlier began drawing down. The last of the five "surge" combat brigades pulled out in July.
There were worries that violence would rise again after the surge, but so far it has continued to drop. The Pentagon announced that 10 U.S. troops died in Iraq in July, six from noncombat causes, the lowest monthly toll since the war began.
Casualties among civilians also were down in July, with The Associated Press reporting the lowest number of deaths since December 2005, a drop of about 75 percent from 2,021 to about 510. Attacks nationally have dropped from 700 a week one year ago to 140 a week now.
Senior U.S. commanders in Iraq often emphasize the positive, but it is true that by practically every measure there has been a startling change since Ferriter's last combat tour there, in 2005 and 2006, during fierce sectarian fighting and when attacks on Americans were common.
Parks and public swimming pools that were empty then because of fears of attacks are teeming with people now, he said.
"We're not only seeing a drop in violence, but a return to normalcy," he said.
A big goal is to continue to help build local governments' ability to deliver services such as clean water. That, too, will feed more business activity.
It may be hard to picture Iraq as a business opportunity, but there's already a nearby model: Foreign investment has been vigorous for years in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. What made that possible is the Kurdish militia's success in almost completely preventing the attacks that have plagued the rest of the country.
Security challenges ahead include the coming provincial elections.
Among other things, the fall in violence is attributed to the buildup, better counterinsurgency tactics and successful efforts to turn Sunni tribes against al-Qaida in Iraq.
The improved security lets U.S. troops focus more on building up Iraqi forces, Ferriter said, teaching not just infantry skills but also boosting things like Iraqi intelligence gathering and aviation units.
Military leaders have long said that the Iraqis' lack of a proper supply chain -- and the penchant for some Iraq military leaders to pilfer -- could keep U.S. forces there long after they're needed for serious combat operations. Austin immediately made improving that supply chain a key goal, Ferriter said.
Despite the drop-off in combat deaths and Iraqi leaders' talk this week that U.S. troops will withdraw by 2011, Ferriter said the fighting hasn't ended. The insurgents are in disarray but still try to sow chaos whenever they see an opening in security, as they have with recent bombings in Baghdad.
"If the enemy senses he has an opportunity to make a comeback, he'll tackle it," Ferriter said.