Fort Riley commander touts U.S. work in Iraq

FORT RILEY — A Fort Riley infantry commander said Monday the parliamentary elections in Iraq were a success based on the high voter turnout in the Iraqi province where Saddam Hussein was born.

Col. Henry Arnold, commander of the 4th Brigade of 1st Infantry Division, said that Iraqis, including the Sunni minority, are focused on solving their differences through the political process, regardless of the outcome in Sunday's elections.

"That is a huge message. That is a decisive point in Iraqi history," Arnold said during a live video link from Iraq back to Fort Riley. "The atmosphere was very exciting, electric. Some of the feedback I got it was a carnival-like atmosphere."

Arnold's brigade saw voter turnout hit 73 percent among the 2 million residents north of Baghdad near Tikrit, Balad and Samara, areas dominated by Sunnis. Tikrit, which is the capital of Salahuddin province, was the birthplace of Saddam. Nationally, 62 percent of Iraqis went to the poll, lower than the previous parliamentary elections in December 2005.

The commander said Sunnis were committed to the political process and had decided to take out their frustration on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is a Shiite, at the ballot box rather than resorting to violence.

"This is a big event. The election was the decisive," Arnold said. "This defines the beginning of the end or our tour and, quite frankly, the end of the U.S. in Iraq."

He said conditions have vastly improved compared with 2007, when the brigade was sent to Iraq as part of the surge of U.S. troops. Iraqis are investing heavily in their communities, he said, building new businesses and large homes in a sign of confidence in the nation's future.

"When you have a good economy, it's harder and harder for violent extremists movements to recruit young males to do things for them," he said.

Arnold went as far as to characterize the war in Iraq, which began in March 2003, as a U.S. victory.