BAGHDAD (American Forces Press Service, July 24, 2007) - The slow pace of legislation and political compromise at Iraq's national level should not belie the potential for economic and political progress in the country's provinces, a coalition commander said.

With security surge operations in and around Baghdad gradually clearing a path for business development and the growth of governance capacity, a window is open to transform progress in those areas into longer-term stability, Army Brig. Gen. Edward Cardon, deputy commander of Task Force Marne, said July 20.

"The importance of the economic and political progress in Iraq, if we do this right, generates a stability such that we won't need as much military power," Brig. Gen. Cardon explained.

Efforts toward that end frequently are eclipsed in the public's awareness by details of Iraq's security situation; however, movement on all fronts is inextricably linked, the general said.

In his area of responsibility — Najaf, Karbala, Babil and Wasit provinces — Brig. Gen. Cardon said his forces and representatives of the State Department-led provincial reconstruction teams are working to draft and implement 100-day plans. These plans, he explained, "provide a focus and some benchmarks to improve both security and local governance."

Toward those ends, he described himself as an enabler, forging relationships among Iraqi leaders to address common problems and solutions.

"What we really do is try and link the provincial government to the national government, the local government to the provincial government, working on plans for security and cooperation and coordination," Brig. Gen. Cardon explained. "That is the hard work of personal engagement."

Success at the local level is in relative contrast to the national government's progress, the general pointed out. "Right now I'm somewhat disappointed with the political progress, in that it hasn't been as rapid as the security progress we've made just over the last few weeks," he said.

"If you go back to the purpose of the surge, it was to get the security situation to a point where you could have political growth," Brig. Gen. Cardon continued. "I think we're doing that pretty well. But the political progress right now is moving much slower than expected, although it is moving, especially at the lower levels."

Contributing to stability in the provinces, he explained, is the expansion of tribal opposition to terrorist and insurgent presence, a phenomenon similar to what is occurring in Anbar province, Brig. Gen. Cardon said.

While the Iraqi army continues to grow in capabilities and effectiveness, the performance of the national and local police has been a "mixed bag" over the past two years, the general noted. Now though, Brig. Gen. Cardon said, shortcomings in the security forces are increasingly being filled by locally mustered vigilante groups, organized along tribal lines.

"Some of these areas that we're clearing out, we have cleared just to a point that we can hold," Brig. Gen. Cardon said. "And what's starting to fill the gap with the Iraqi security units are these concerned citizens that are … tired of al Qaeda, of these extremist groups, and have … (decided to) protect their own neighborhoods."

These groups are neither armed nor paid by coalition forces, Brig. Gen. Cardon clarified. "But we do acknowledge that they can secure their own areas, and in some areas that's having a real impact on the enemy," he said.

The success of Anbar has continued to spread across belts of southern Baghdad and is even starting to swing all the way around to the east side, Brig. Gen. Cardon said. "That's buying some time for some political development if we can get the political development to move a little bit quicker," he added.

At the provincial level, such development entails generation of program-management capabilities and movement away from a state-run economic mindset, Brig. Gen. Cardon explained.

Regarding the economy, stimulating enterprise growth and diversification is already a challenge, further complicated by a flood of Iranian imports into the areas south and east of Baghdad, the general said.

"The bigger problem now is the Iranian economic influence in Iraq, … because there's no tariffs, and the borders basically are wide open," Brig. Gen. Cardon said. "They're importing … low-cost goods into Iraq, which then compete against Iraqi business, and it's hard for Iraqi business to compete against mass production."

One avenue being pursued to boost the economy is the resumption of certain state-owned enterprises to push Iraqi-made niche products to in-country consumers and foreign markets, Brig. Gen. Cardon said. That task is being taken on by the Defense Department's Task Force for Business and Stabilization Operations, he said. Other expertise comes from the State Department's provincial reconstruction teams.

Despite progress, the sectarian radicalization of some areas is an obstacle to freedom of movement and prevents goods from getting to market, Brig. Gen. Cardon said. And while the number of "spectacular attacks" that exacerbate sectarianism has been reduced by the surge, they do still take place, he said.

Business and security issues will be discussed in an upcoming provincial governors' conference facilitated by his office, Brig. Gen. Cardon said. The appropriate ministers from Baghdad are expected to attend to hash out disconnects between the regional and national governments.

"One of the complaints of the governors is that they're disconnected from the national government," Brig. Gen. Cardon said. "So, you know, this is a great opportunity to … develop government capacity by just getting them together."