Marne Task Force commander Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo said Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Air Field soldiers’ families will have to wait the full 12-month deployment cycle for their loved ones to return.
The Army is accomplishing its advise and assist mission in Iraq, the general said, but the 3rd ID’s job is far from over.
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 Thursday on the division’s operations in northern Iraq at 9 p.m. Iraqi time, 1 p.m. EST.
Northern Iraq is woven with the country’s most “intricate and diverse demographics” Cucolo said, and therefore he and his soldiers have had to learn about the various Iraqi cultures.
“A soldier always studies the physical terrain of a country,” Cucolo said, describing what troops must do to anticipate an enemy’s movements. “In Iraq, you must first address the demographics, the people.”
Iraq’s multiple and assorted peoples are also part of the nation’s terrain, he said.
The general said he and his soldiers work with Iraqis of different religious and ethnic backgrounds, including Sunni and Shia Muslims, the Kurds and minorities such as Chaldean and Assyrian Christians, Turkmen, the Yazidi and the Shabak.
Cucolo’s soldiers partner with Iraqi security forces, Iraqi police and the Kurdistan Regional Government forces. His command covers seven provinces north of Baghdad, an extensive area bordered by Syria, Iran and Turkey.
In addition to learning about diverse cultures within Iraq, Cucolo had to get a handle on the districts — which he compares to counties inside a state — as well Iraq’s northern province of Ninewa, which can be compared to a U.S. state.
“Beyond that I had to study the tribes,” he said. “The tribes cross lines. Tribes know no boundaries.”
Cucolo said his forces sit astride the Kurd/Arab fault line, which adds to the complexity of advise and assist.
Still, the general said some lofty goals are being realized despite insurgents’ continuing acts of violence, which he expects will persist even as Iraqis move forward.
“We have some challenges here right now,” Cucolo said. “Saying that, the Iraqi security forces have come so far ... they have improved so much since 2004, it’s just amazing. I have Iraqi Army units that are capable of operating on their own.”
However, the Iraqi forces will not be able to effectively and completely stand on their own until they establish an “institutional capability,” the general said. The Iraqis must still improve their logistics and training to be able to fully supply and sustain their troops, Cucolo said.
Another challenge for the 3rd ID and their Iraqi counterparts is patrolling porous borders, the general said.
“We have formal crossing points and informal crossing points … and illicit crossing points,” he said.
The general said patrolling the borders is made more difficult because of “pockets” of corruption that exist among some Iraqi police and in a few judicial systems. He said bribery is not widespread or rampant, “but it’s enough to distract and discourage Iraqi citizens.”
Cucolo said he and his soldiers are busy manning 26 checkpoints with their partners, Iraqi police and the Peshmerga (Kurdish fighters). These checkpoints stretch “in a crescent” from the border with Syria in the west through the region’s disputed boundary area down to the eastern border with Iran.
Still, there are rewards, the general said. Some of the people who partner with the 3rd ID had once been warring factions, he said, like the Iraqi forces and the Peshmerga. Today, they work together, the general said.
“Ultimately, it will be one Iraq,” Cucolo said.
Editor’s note: This is part one 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.