A Valentine from the general
Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, who is deployed to Iraq, sent his wife, Ginger Cucolo, a verbal Valentine “shout out” Thursday.
Cucolo said he misses his wife and keeps photos of her everywhere: on his nightstand, his office desk and on a small table when out in the field.
“I go to bed every night knowing I’m the luckiest man in the world because she married me,” he said. “We’ve been married 27 wonderful years. I have no idea why she stays with me, but I love her for it. And I’d like her to be my Valentine.”
Marne Task Force commander Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo said 3rd Infantry Division soldiers under his command in Iraq sometimes face great risk in order to help democracy grow there.
Despite advances Iraqis have made toward building a stable government and providing security for their people, with the help of American soldiers, enemy forces are at work to disrupt life and liberty in Iraq, the general said.
Cucolo’s command consists of about 21,000 soldiers, from the local installation here and from brigades based in Washington, Texas, Kansas and Hawaii. The general offered a detailed update on the division’s operations in northern Iraq at 9 p.m. Iraqi time, 1 p.m. EST on Thursday.
The 3rd ID is currently serving a 12-month deployment cycle for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Cucolo does not expect the division to return home before October.
“We’re on the current timeline of drawdown,” Cucolo said. “The strategy and the plan is end of combat operations by Sept. 1. Unfortunately, some people have (erroneously) heard all combat troops would be out by Sept. 1. That is not true.”
The general said his soldiers are engaged in “full-spectrum” operations, meaning advising and assisting Iraqis to keep the peace and provide security can be a dangerous job.
Cucolo said he and his soldiers are busy manning 26 checkpoints with their partners, Iraqi soldiers and police and the Peshmerga, scattered across a vast expanse of northern Iraq. The general said insurgents have used suicide bombers and vehicles filled with explosives to attempt to break through similar manned checkpoints.
The two most dangerous groups Cucolo and his soldiers and their Iraqi partners continuously face are Al-Qaida and Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN), the 3rd ID commander said.
“Al-Qaida wants Iraq to be a failed state,” Cucolo said. “The JRTN are Sunni Baathists who are a ‘Saddam (Hussein) rises’ kind of group. They’re very violent and want to overthrow the (majority) Shia government. Both these groups are hell bent on stopping us from our mission.”
The general and his troops are currently preparing to support their Iraqi partners by providing security for Iraq’s elections next month.
“This is Iraq’s election,” he said. “The Iraqis are running it completely.”
Cucolo said the American military will assist by providing overhead surveillance both “manned and unmanned.”
“We can watch what is happening in places we are not,” he said. “The ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance program) will be put in the sky over critical polling sites and ballot warehouses to ensure the Iraqis can see what is going on. And we will help provide security outside of cities and on key roads, but only where the Iraqis ask us to.”
Cucolo said his troops also will provide support to international observers, who will travel to Iraq to ensure a fair election.
“We will have 27 teams of international observers in northern Iraq,” he said. “They will watch ballot boxes and movement of ballot boxes. Some of them will have to live with us. And we will have to transport them by helicopter to hand them off to the Iraqis.”
Cucolo said 3rd ID soldiers will also provide “quick evacuation forces if necessary.”
“I’m sure the enemy is going to try to use violence to disrupt the elections,” he said. “We are going to try to make it really hard for them to do that, but you can’t stop everything.”
The general said the hard work for the Iraqis will begin once the elections are over. They will have to form a coalition government and will select their president and various council ministers, he said.
“It’s called a ‘seating of the government,’” Cucolo said. “There will be sore losers. So we’re worried about that.”
Despite the challenges and setbacks, the general said he has seen democracy take root in Iraq.
“There’s hope here for democracy,” he said. “We’re proud to be a part of it, as difficult as it is.”
Cucolo described a peaceful demonstration by 200 Sunnis through a Shia town. The protestors were upset over the barring of Sunni candidates from an election list. The town’s Shia police provided security for the Sunni demonstrators, he said.
“It was a peaceful assembly in an area that could have been otherwise,” the general said.
He offered another example of Iraqis practicing democracy. One province’s citizens voted to oust an ineffective provincial governor. When that effort was stalled, the Iraqi citizens used “rule of law” and brought their case before the Iraqi Supreme Court, he said.
“They took a page from Mohandas Gandhi on civil disobedience,” the general said.
Cucolo said he realizes it’s hard for many people to understand the progress being made in Iraq.
“You have to be here to see the fire of democracy starting to catch,” he said. “It’s catching in an Iraqi way and in isolated places, but it is catching.”
Editor’s note: The following is part II of a two-part story based on a telephone interview granted the Coastal Courier by Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, who is currently deployed to northern Iraq.