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Iraq held its first election since the withdrawal of International troops. The election for local councils, was carried out largely free of any violence or unrest which marks the first step in the right direction for this young democratic country.

There are still instances of corruption, violence and political problems. According to the NYTimes an disenchanted Iraqi said: “I will not be fooled again,” Haider al-Mutairy, a lawyer in Babil Province. “Nothing changed after I participated in the last elections. My street is still broken and filled with dirt, the electricity and water is still bad…”

But the majority of Iraqis did vote and showed off their fingers, stained with purple ink, as proof. “It’s my duty to come here,” said Faris Zaki, who voted in central Baghdad and brought his young daughter to the voting booths. No deaths were reported during the elections, there were unfortunately a handful of people that were wounded in explosions and mortar attacks in parts of the country.

The vote for local representatives consisted of 8,138 candidates competing for 447 seats in provincial councils. The provincial elections are a provide a barometer of the standing of the political elite ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections as local candidates are affiliated with the national parties. Winning at a local level gives national parties control of provincial governments and deepens their influence ahead of the vote. “The provincial elections are like the preseason,” said Ramzy Mardini, a fellow at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. “They gauge the viability of the parties, and the alliance configurations.”

For the provinces that voted, the turnout was around 50% about the same as the overall turnout for the 2009 local elections, but lower than the 62 percent during national elections in 2010. “We consider this percentage very high considering what we are living with these days,” said Mukdad al-Sharifi, an election official, at a press conference Saturday evening in Baghdad.

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The US Military mission officially ends in Iraq.

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Air control tower

CAMP VICTORY – After spending more than a year-and-a-half coordinating U.S. airpower here while helping to ensure our force level drew down to 50,000, the senior U.S. Air Force airman in Iraq is headed home.

Serving as the Director of the Air Component Coordination Element here, the Director of the USF-I Force Strategic Engagement Cell, and the 9th Air Expeditionary Task Force – Baghdad Detachment-2 Commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph Reynes Jr. has watched the number of U.S. service members here decrease from 148,000 to around 50,000, to include a decrease in airmen from more than 12,000 to less than 6,000.

Reynes recently explained the mission our Air Force conducted here during his tenure.

“We’ve provided timely and precise air mobility,” he said. “We’ve had 24/7 unblinking [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] to cover and work with our joint force partners. And then, of course, we’ve had kinetic and non-kinetic operations at the discretion of the commanders in support of their missions.

“It’s been an awesome mission that we’ve executed over and over again, and we’ve just gotten better every day,” the general added.

Reynes is especially proud of his airmen for completing their regular mission while also assisting with the historic U.S. drawdown of forces.

“What’s evolved is how we translated those missions, and how we’ve drawn down at the same time,” Reynes said. “[We’re] executing the same missions, 24/7, 365, in support of the ground force commander. And they’ve done that while we’ve done one of the most historic drawdowns, while executing the mission at the same time.”

Moving into Operation New Dawn means adapting to a smaller footprint for U.S. airmen and growing capabilities for Iraqi airmen, the general said. It’s a new beginning for Iraq, he said, noting the Iraqi Air Force has grown from 1,500 airmen and 28 aircraft two years ago to 7,000 airmen and more than 100 aircraft now.

The IqAF is expected to grow to more than 10,000 members by 2012, Reynes said. Meanwhile, he said, Iraqi airmen are beginning to move onto bases here such as Joint Base Balad, Ali and Sather.

“We’ll continue to support and do the same missions we’ve done, but at the same time we’re handing more and more off to our Iraqi partners,” Reynes said. “And over the next year, you’re going to see more partnering with our Iraqi brothers and sisters, but also we’ll be doing more training.

“[It’s a] mission they want to do and execute,” he continued, referring to Iraq’s airmen. “And we’re working with them to ensure they are the best they can be.”

As the drawdown continues, about 6,000 U.S. airmen will remain in Iraq, Reynes said. The Air Force footprint has gotten smaller, he said, but airmen will retain the same capabilities to execute a variety of missions in support of ground forces.

“Operation New Dawn really doesn’t change anything for our airmen,” Reynes said. “They are still going to be executing the same missions as they were before, but there will be fewer airmen. We’re still going to be providing ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance].” We’re still going to be providing timely and precise cargo and passenger movement.

“And of course,” he continued, “every day and every night there are going to be aircraft airborne, just in case kinetics are needed, and in more cases, just for that presence over the battlefield for 24/7, 365 overwatch.”

While doing all of this, U.S. airmen will be training their Iraqi counterparts throughout the country so they can completely take over the mission by the end of 2011, the general said.

“Airmen will be partnering with our Iraqi brothers as we develop the Iraqi Air Force, as we continue to work to develop those partnerships and engagements with our Iraqi brothers and sisters as we move toward end of mission,” Reynes concluded.

US Soldier helping

BAGHDAD — U.S. Soldiers here reached out to help their Iraqi neighbors harvesting in a date palm farm near East Rashid Monday, significant, as the date is traditionally the first piece of food Muslims eat to end daily fasting during their holy month of Ramadan.

“I appreciate the Soldiers collecting, delivering and transporting the dates for the Iraqi people and all the Muslims when they break their fasting,” said Dr. Muayad Hamad, the owner of the date farm. “This is very much appreciated because if anyone [is given] one piece of date to break his fasting, it is something big.”

Capt. Jonathan Heist, commander of A Troop, 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Advise and Assist Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, and a Canton, Ohio, native, said before the start of the war Iraq was known for its dates—Iraq’s second biggest export just behind oil at the time.

Hamad grew up on this date farm, owned by his family for almost 100 years. The farm has suffered in recent years because of combat in Iraq, but that is something the Americans hope to change with the help of the Iraqis.

“We are trying to show that American forces are here to assist in [building Iraq’s economy],” Heist said. “We are partners with the Iraqi people, we want them to return and surpass the success that they used to have.”

The platoon that helped Hamad harvest dates is an example of that cooperation. Three Iraqi National Police officers are embedded in the platoon, doing everything the American Soldiers do.

“I am so happy for this because we work as one family here to help Iraqis and support people here,” said Sgt. Kareen, an NP official.

Advising the Iraqis as they stand on their own is part of the Operation New Dawn mission, and U.S. Soldiers are adapting to their new role.

“It definitely builds trust and confidence between the people and Iraqi Security Forces, to see them out there with us jointly, and it’s good fun doing something other than your standard patrols,” said Staff Sgt. Daniel Brooks, a cavalry scout with A Troop, 5th Sqdn.7th, Cav. Regt., and Hinesville, Ga., native.

Brooks said helping out the local community brings purpose to what is going on in Iraq, and he feels like what they did at the date farm was beneficial to all.

Heist said being able to focus on activities that build and lend a helping hand is very satisfying.

Ensuring date farms and other possible areas of employment remain stable will also help build the economy here, he said.

US helicopter

TIKRIT – Following more than a year of preparation, Iraqi cadets will soon begin training here on Contingency Operating Base Speicher, the first to attend the recently-reopened Iraqi Air Force Academy since it closed in 2003.

“The Iraqi Air Force [Academy] will gradually increase its footprint,” said U.S. Air Force Col. David Blanks, the Expeditionary Mission Support Advisory Group commander. “The Iraqi Air Force has approximately 5,000 airmen [officer and enlisted] today. That number is projected to grow to nearly 12,000 by the end of 2012.”

These cadets are part of a time-honored tradition that dates back to April 22, 1931, when five Iraqi pilots completed their pilot training in Britain. Iraq has since celebrated that event as the establishment date of the IqAF.

However, Iraq’s aviators continued to complete their training abroad until the 1970s, when the IqAF academy was built here. The academy commissioned pilots until the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In 2007, the IqAF began molding aviators at the Iraqi Military Academy in Ar Rustimiyah.

The cadets will devote the next three years to earning a commission in the IqAF. The curriculum consists of a comprehensive study of general academics, leadership development and flight training on Iraqi-owned aircraft. English is a major part of the curriculum, since it is the mandated international language of aviation set forth by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

The students will also learn how to be instructors so they may teach others how to fly fighter jets and protect Iraq’s borders.

“We have a goal and end state to reach,” said Staff Brig. Gen. Ali Hasan, the commander of the IqAF and dean of the school. “My job is to produce confident pilots to protect our international borders. Despite the obstacles or challenges we will traverse.

“We are not without challenges. That does not mean we stop training,” Ali continued. “My goal is to produce the maximum number of pilots from each class. The academy is here to provide that training for the cadets.”