SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - When he first arrived in Iraqi city of Ramadi, Col. John Charlton wouldn't have imagined walking the war-devastated streets without a flak jacket the way he did recently.
But that renewed sense of security now marks one of the most dramatic changes the commander of the First Brigade Combat Team of the Third Infantry Division has witnessed during his 13 months in Iraq.
"The city is extremely safe, over 200 days without a single shot fired in the city, which you could compare favorably to many cities in the United States,'' Charlton said in a live satellite interview with WTOC from Ramadi. "The police are progressing. They're taking charge of the security situation, and what we're doing is we're actually moving further outside the city, going after terrorists in remote areas outside the city in some pretty remote areas that the enemy likes to use as sanctuary.''
In doing so, they have started to turn security of the city over to local police and the Iraqi army, an authority that Charlton expects to be fully transferred this spring.
"We are at the point now where we're completely in an advisory role,'' said Charlton. "Ninety-nine percent of the arrests or detainments made are being done by the police and the Iraqi army."
He continued, "Right now, the troops I have assigned to me are down at the police stations or out working with the Iraqi Army and that trend is going to continue. What that allows us to do is reduce the overall number of coalition forces and still maintain good security.''
It has also allowed for the reconstruction of major urban areas such as Ramadi, with schools and businesses reopening, and a level of comfort that coalition forces did not only help create but now can share.
"It's tremendous because you actually can see it in front of you every day,'' said Charlton. "You go from that devastated war zone to now a city that's starting to function in a normal way with people living their lives normally and in peace. It just makes you feel like you've really given something to the Iraqi people. And that's what we're here for.''
And he says the progress is evident in the everyday life returning to normal all around him.
"You see it in the faces of the young children when they're able to go to school or when they're able to celebrate a religious holiday that they haven't been able to celebrate before because of violence," he said. "Those are the kind of things in the daily lives of the Iraqis that really have an impact on people, on us and them.''