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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

To hear Vice President Dick Cheney tell it, the improvement in Iraq is, quote, "phenomenal." That's one of the words the vice president used during a visit to the country. Yet like U.S. generals, the vice president acknowledges that five years after the start of the war, the situation has not improved enough to permit major troop withdrawals.

INSKEEP: We've been examining the state of Iraq during this anniversary week, and this morning, we're going to talk about security and Iraq's broken politics. We've called a man whose job it is to fix both.

MONTAGNE: We've met Major General Mark Hertling on this program before, and we've also spoken with his family. General Hertling's two sons have both done tours in Iraq, and his wife has rarely had a day when someone in the family wasn't serving there.

Now the general is back. He's commander of the 1st Armored Division, and he has responsibility for troops in all of northern Iraq. That's where the troubled Diyala province is located. That's a place where al-Qaida in Iraq militants poured in after being driven from Baghdad and other areas.

We reached General Hertling the other day at his headquarters in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, after the general had been out in the field with his troops.

Good morning.

General MARK HERTLING (US Army): Good morning, Renee. How are you today?

MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you very much. And, in fact, I'd like to start this conversation by asking you what was the first news you woke up to this morning?

Gen. HERTLING: Well, this morning, the security situation here in Iraq today is, in our part of the country, in the north, is still a little bit tenuous. We're still continuing to pursue al-Qaida in several areas in our regions. And what I woke up to this morning, quite frankly, was a sunny day, and there wasn't any overnight issues other than the fact that we did, in fact, capture a couple of more high-value targets in and around Mosul and one in Diyala province, which was very good, from a couple of raids that we did last night.

MONTAGNE: There was a general decline in violence the last few months in Iraq, many think partly or mostly because of the surge of U.S. troops. Lately, there has been a rise in violence, at least in some parts of Iraq, that your forces are operating in. And some would say that's because of the surge as well.

Gen. HERTLING: I would disagree with the premise, Renee. I don't think we have seen a rise in violence in the northern provinces. What we have seen is not as much of a decline in the north as has occurred in the rest of Iraq. While the rest of Iraq was seeing decline significantly, and especially in Anbar province and in Baghdad, there have been some of the terrorists that we've tracked, some of al-Qaida and some other extremists that have moved into the northern areas, especially around Mosul, the Rabiya crossing and even some into Diyala province, which did not have many troops there.

But even with that, over the last six months, the number of attacks in our provinces have dropped about 50 percent. Over the last month or so, they have somewhat evened out, so there hasn't been the continued decline in violence.

MONTAGNE: Do you, though, have enough troops if this is an ongoing issue of insurgents being pushed out of one place and pushed into another and, at this moment in time, they're tending to be pushed into your area up there in the north?

Gen. HERTLING: I think we do, Renee. I would have to answer that, yes, we do have enough U.S. troops. What we continue to build in capacity are the Iraqi security forces. And we're not completely where we want to be there in the north. We do have four Army divisions in the northern provinces. Again, the area that I'm responsible for is about the size of the state of Pennsylvania.

So we need to continue to build capacity in the Iraqi army divisions. But also most importantly in the north, we need to build capacity in the Iraqi police forces. We think we're missing about - oh, somewhere about 30,000 police officers up here in the north and we are going to begin to train those additional police forces starting in the month of April.

MONTAGNE: Parallel to trying to get the security forces there, you know, up and running and efficient and effective, you're also trying to help local officials where you all get resources from the national government in Baghdad. It sounds like you're bringing Baghdad to them - I think you call it something like helicopter diplomacy.

Gen. HERTLING: We call it reverse helicopter governance. And what that is defined as is bringing the ministers to the provinces. In the past, governors went to Baghdad, met with the ministers, had their ceremonial tea, which is part of the culture, presented their problems and then left and went back to their provinces, at that point hoping that the ministers would help them solve their problems.

Well, the central government has so many challenges right now, that sometimes as soon as the governors left their offices, their problems were forgotten. What we attempted to do recently, and it seems to be working, and it seems to be generating a lot of interest, is we brought our seven governors together in the north, the governors from the southern provinces, to Tikrit, and we help the ministers, under deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, come up here.

And we had an all-day event with them where some key concerns were aired between the provincial governors and the central ministries. We're beginning to see some results where the ministers now understand what's going on in the outlying provinces and aren't just focused on the capital city of Baghdad.

MONTAGNE: And some of the concerns that they heard about there?

Gen. HERTLING: Well, it's just primarily getting infrastructure back up and operational, the processing of the budget, the way oil and gas and kerosene is distributed, security means, the generation of more police as I talked about earlier, things like sewer systems, cleaner water, even things like the distribution of fertilizer and products that will help crops grow better.

These are just some of the hundreds of things that we worked with, ministers, like the minister of finance, minister of construction and housing, the minister of agriculture. So it was an event to try and bring the ministers to talk to the governors.

MONTAGNE: All these ministries in Baghdad have been accused of not being very willing to part with the money.

Gen. HERTLING: In a Western mindset, you would say they're not willing to part with the money. In the Arab mindset, because they are changing their processes, it's a different culture of you've got to change the way you think about things. Under Saddam, the central government was viewed as successful if they saved their budget. Now in a society where they're trying to equally distribute things, they have to break that mindset of, hey, we've got to get rid of the money and actually help the provinces and understand what the people's needs are.

MONTAGNE: So did these ministers pledge to spend the money? Get the money to the…

Gen. HERTLING: They did…

MONTAGNE: …provinces?

Gen. HERTLING: …actually. And, in fact, that's an interesting fact, because there are very few banks over here. So just saying to the central government, hey, wire money to X, Y or Z province isn't like saying, hey, wire money to the capital of Missouri or the capital of California in order to get funds to them. Everything you do over here in terms of finances is very difficult.

MONTAGNE: Well, since you're in the thick of this, what do you have to do to make sure they keep their pledges?

Gen. HERTLING: That's a great question. We have to ensure that there's trust between the central government and the provincial governors. We have to ensure that there's continued dialogue. We have to provide the helicopters that get them from one place to another while the security conditions continue to improve.

We're really sort of the bridge between the central government and the provinces to get the right things happening. It's a very difficult mission, by the way, for a bunch of military guys who are in the next phase of this operation.

MONTAGNE: Major General Mark Hertling is commander of military forces in northern Iraq, speaking to us from Tikrit. Thank you very much.

Gen. HERTLING: Thanks, Renee.

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