U.S. forces liv­ing among the Iraqis

The Washington Times Weekly - - Front Page - By Sharon Behn

First of two parts

BAGH­DAD — U.S. forces in the Iraqi cap­i­tal are “fight­ing a two-front war, block by block,” says Com­mand Sgt. Maj. Alan Bjerke of the bat­tle for Bagh­dad, where his sol­diers face daily bomb and gun­fire at­tacks along the city’s sec­tar­ian fault lines.

Ev­ery day since the surge be­gan in early Fe­bru­ary, U.S. sol­diers have gone out among this city’s 6 mil­lion peo­ple for 10 to 12 hours at a time. They pa­trol the streets, sit in cramped Iraqi homes lis­ten­ing to fam­i­lies, me­di­ate dis­putes, raid homes, de­tain sus­pects, and un­cover bombs, weapons, sui­cide vests and the tools of tor­ture.

Roughly half­way into what U.S. com­man­ders ac­knowl­edge is their last, best chance to turn the tide in Iraq, there are pock­ets of peace in the cap­i­tal where — when the mil­i­tary blocks off a neigh­bor­hood — cit­i­zens can crowd onto the street to shop, talk and drink tea, and chil­dren can cir­cle around a will­ing sol­dier shout­ing “Mista, Mista, give me one ball.”

But there are prob­lems in Iraq much greater than a soc­cer ball can fix. And they may be greater than a U.S. force pro­jected to peak at about 160,000 troops can ac­com­plish un­less the Iraqi gov­ern­ment is able to cap­i­tal­ize on the small wedges of peace that U.S. forces are cre­at­ing.

U.S. com­man­ders say they will not be able to make a fair as­sess­ment of the new strate­gies un­til Septem­ber. But even as fresh U.S. troops pour into Bagh­dad — 4,000 ar­rived two weeks ago — Iraqis’ con­fi­dence in their own gov­ern­ment is erod­ing.

“Half the par­lia­ment is with al Qaeda, and the other half is with the mili­tia,” said Feras, a young Iraqi who, like many of his coun­try­men, would not be quoted by more than his first name. “We have a dirty par­lia-

ment, a dirty mili­tia and a dirty war.”

Cabi­net min­is­ters, Feras charged over cups of tea, are loyal only to their par­ties and are to­tally cor­rupt.

“They are not work­ing for their coun­try; they are work­ing for their fu­ture,” he said in dis­gust. “If you want to make peace, you have to take away all their guns and their power.”

Mov­ing in

The key to the Bagh­dad se­cu­rity plan­putin­place­byGen.DavidH.Pe­traeus is to se­cure neigh­bor­hoods by plac­ing U.S. troops among the Iraqi peo­ple in small bases known as Joint Se­cu­rity Sta­tions (JSS) or Com­mand Out­posts (COP).

Sit­ting in the shade of a well-tended flower gar­den in one of the wealth­ier neigh­bor­hood­son­theed­ge­oftheSadr City slum, 1st Lt. Chris Alexan­der ex­plained the the­ory to Capt. Ah­mer, a na­tion­alpo­lice­of­fi­cer­who­forse­cu­rity rea­sonswould­provideon­ly­one­name.

“In the past, it was hard be­cause units pa­trolled for se­cu­rity only. Now you see Amer­i­cans liv­ing with you, in JSSes,soth­ey­canget­to­knowthep­eo­ple and help on a more per­sonal level than be­fore,” Lt. Alexan­der said.

U.S. troops, work­ing side by side with Iraqi army or po­lice, mount daily pa­trols from th­ese sta­tions and out­posts but, in re­al­ity, are lit­tle closer to their Iraqi neigh­bors than be­fore.

The posts are nor­mally se­cured be­hin­do­ne­ort­worow­sof10-foot-high con­crete­walls;in­some­cases,thewin­dows are partly boarded up and guards are posted at the en­tries. Even then, the troops feel dan­ger­ously vul­ner­a­ble:In­re­cen­tweeks,atleast­three car bombs have slammed into the walls of out­posts, and troops are shot at ev­ery day.

Sol­diers also find it hard to present a friendly face to Iraqi civil­ians af­ter see­ing their col­leagues killed and dis­mem­bered by snipers and road­side ex­plo­sives.

“It’s a nat­u­ral ten­dency, when you lose your buddy, to lash out,” said Lt. Col. Frank An­drews of the 2nd Bri­gadeCom­bat­Team,10thMoun­tain Di­vi­sion, which pa­trols a large area south of Bagh­dad.

But Com­mand Sgt. Maj. Jeff Mellinger, in­ter­viewed shortly be­fore leav­ing Iraq af­ter three years in the theater, said the troops un­der­stand the re­straints.

“It’s not a dilemma; it is just how it is. It’s who we are — we aren’t them. Theter­ror­ists,the­mur­der­ers,the­yare will­ing to do any­thing, no con­science, no re­morse.

“We­have­g­ot­prin­ci­ples,andweare go­ing to main­tain the moral high ground. Does it hand­i­cap us? Some­times. [But] we are not go­ing to play their game by their rules,” he said.

Get­ting worse

Another­fea­ture­ofthe­newse­cu­rity plan is the cre­ation of so-called “gated com­mu­ni­ties,” de­signed to pro­tect Sunni neigh­bor­hoods from Shi’ites and vice versa.

The name con­jures up an im­age of el­e­gantwhite­houses,swim­ming­pools and golf cour­ses. But th­ese com­mu­ni­ties are sealed off by con­crete walls and sand­bags piled 6 feet high and guard­ed­by­po­lice­and­mil­i­tary­forces.

The mea­sures are pro­vid­ing some se­cu­rity, but Iraqis worry that their pop­u­la­tion is be­com­ing even more di­vided along sec­tar­ian lines.

Over­all­rate­sofvi­o­lence­droppedin the early part of the surge, but April brought a dra­matic in­crease of bomb­ings and the high­est ca­su­alty rate for U.S. troops this year.

From March 26 to April 17, 1,131 Iraqi civil­ians were killed and 1,347 wounded while coali­tion forces suf­fered 38 dead and 231 wounded, ac­cord­ing to U.S. mil­i­tary sta­tis­tics. En­emy ca­su­al­ties were posted as 105 killed,40woundedand1,087de­tained.

OnApril14,ac­cord­ingtofig­ures­not nor­mally re­leased to the pub­lic, there were 27 bomb­ings and car bomb­ings, 348 civil­ians killed in­clud­ing 19 homi­cides, and 392 wounded. There were 59 in­stances of di­rect and in­di­rect fire on coali­tion forces in which 12 were hurt — 11 of whom were af­fected by ni­tric acid.

On April 15, there were 24 bomb­ings and car bomb­ings, seven more found and det­o­nated, 61 civil­ians killed, 130 wounded, and two coali­tion sol­diers and 16 en­emy forces killed.

On April 16, 14 bombs went off, ninew­ere­foun­dand­det­o­nated.There were six homi­cides, two ex­plo­sions, and 21 in­stances of di­rect and in­di­rect fire — in­clud­ing small arms, mor­tars and rocket-pro­pelled grenades — against coali­tion forces alone. The list goes on. “I don’t be­lieve they have reached a sat­u­ra­tion point” of killings, said Com­mand Sgt. Maj. Mellinger, who handed his com­mand over to Com­mand Sgt. Maj. Marvin L. Hill on May 5.

In need of ba­sics

De­spite the in­creased U.S. pa­trols through their neigh­bor­hoods, Iraqis are not con­vinced that much has changed. They still lack reg­u­lar sup­plies of elec­tric­ity, wa­ter and sewage. Teach­ers are be­ing ex­e­cuted, and schools have been shut down.

Most of all, they no longer trust the prom­ises that ev­ery­thing will get bet­ter. They don’t trust their own gov­ern­ment—which­has­failed­to­pro­vide ba­sic ser­vices — and they don’t trust the army and po­lice, which they con­sider to be cor­rupt and in­fil­trated by mili­tias.

“The gov­ern­ment is noth­ing,” said Has­san, a mid­dle-aged doc­tor who asked that his last name not be used. “Itisjust­likethe­head­o­fa­camel.What do you think if some­one can bomb the par­lia­ment?”

He was re­fer­ring to a ma­jor se­cu­ri­ty­fail­ure­onMarch23in­whicha­sui­cide­bomber­man­aged­topen­e­tratethe U.S.-for­ti­fied Green Zone and at­tack the par­lia­ment build­ing, killing one law­maker and wound­ing oth­ers.

Capt. Ah­mer, a slim man with a care­fully trimmed mous­tache and a swag­ger, sipped at a small glass of sweet Iraqi tea and told the U.S. sol­diers that many peo­ple felt the Amer­i­cans had promised more than they have de­liv­ered — a com­ment on the $18 bil­lion U.S.-led re­con­struc­tion ef­fort.

“If you want to gain the trust of the peo­ple, and of this neigh­bor­hood, do some­thing, like med­i­cal clin­ics, sports fa­cil­i­ties, parks,” said the na­tional po­lice of­fi­cer, a Shi’ite who is sus­pected by the U.S. of be­long­ing to mil­i­tant cleric Muq­tada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army mili­tia.

Short­chang­ing sol­diers

The ex­pec­ta­tion that the United States and its al­lies should pro­vide ba­sic ser­vices to civil­ians and se­cu­rity forces alike runs deep in Iraq and re­veals the lack of con­fi­dence in the gov­ern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki.

OneIraqiof­fi­cer,workinga­long­side U.S. troops pa­trolling Sadr City, asked the United States to pro­vide his sol­diers with bet­ter weapons, bet­ter ve­hi­cles and bet­ter uni­forms.

“We asked the gov­ern­ment to pro­vide us with good uni­forms and good weapons, but the gov­ern­ment said, ‘We will do it later,’ ” said the lieu­tenant colonel, who asked that his name not be used for fear of re­tal­i­a­tion.

The gov­ern­ment’s fail­ure to prop­erly equip its own forces is also vis­i­ble out­side Bagh­dad, in cities such as Kirkuk. There, sol­diers placed in tiny fron­tier­like posts to pro­tect the coun­try’s oil pipe­line com­plained about poor food, lit­tle wa­ter and a lack of uni­forms.

Com­mandSgt.Maj.Mellinger,who served as Gen. Pe­traeus’ right-hand man, sat down in one of the out­posts and asked to taste the small tri­an­gle of pro­cessed cheese that the Iraqi sol­diers get for break­fast.

As the cheese melted in his mouth, his face twisted. Later, he said it was one of the foulest things he had ever tasted.

“It was like it had gone bad, then they put it in the fridge, then brought it back out again,” he said.

Iraqi con­trac­tors hired to pro­vide food and wa­ter to the sol­diers of­ten cut cor­ners, keep­ing the ex­tra money as profit. Some Iraqi of­fi­cers also are said to charge each sol­dier $15 a mon­th­forthep­riv­i­le­ge­ofhavin­ga­job.

Pri­vately, ev­ery­one in Iraq ac­knowl­edges that cor­rup­tion per­me­ates the coun­try and reaches to the high­est lev­els.

“We are fight­ing an armed en­emy and, at the same time, try­ing to build civil­ian gov­ern­ment ca­pac­ity, and build in­fra­struc­ture,” said Com­mand Sgt. Maj. Mellinger.

Los­ing hope

Three months into the surge, no­body re­ally knows whether it is work­ing — or how long it will last.

The mil­i­tary in­sists that there is progress, cit­ing ev­i­dence of re­duced sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence, a stronger role played by the Iraqi forces, suc­cess­ful detainee op­er­a­tions and the reg­u­lar dis­cov­ery of weapons caches.

But none of that is much com­fort to a wo­man such as Rana, a mother of two who two weeks ago had her ears blown out, lost con­trol of her legs and col­lapsed inside a bus when a huge car bomb ex­ploded 100 yards away from her. She in­sisted that her full name not be pub­lished.

“The se­cu­rity plan gave us hope in the be­gin­ning,” said Feras, the dark­eyed young man in his 20s whose fam­i­lylivesinamixedareathatis­con­stantly un­der at­tack. But now peo­ple “are feel­ing sad­der. The at­tacks are ris­ing, es­pe­cially the car bombs.”

En­emy groups in Iraq adapt quickly to new U.S. tac­tics, forc­ing the U.S. troops to con­stantly be on guard and de­vel­op­ing new coun­ter­mea­sures.

At one point, hos­tile forces set up false land­ing zones, hop­ing to am­bush he­li­copter flight medics rush­ing to pick up wounded sol­diers or Iraqi civil­ians. Luck­ily, no U.S. pilot set down at one of them.

U.S.sol­diersinBagh­dad,whoad­mit that they can­not tell a Shi’ite from a Sunni, are try­ing to quell a num­ber of con­flicts si­mul­ta­ne­ously around the city, while try­ing to map the con­stantly shift­ing sands of an en­emy land­scape.

Thereis­sec­tar­i­an­vi­o­lence­be­tween Sunni and Shi’ites, there is Sunni-onSunni vi­o­lence, Shi’ite-on-Shi’ite vi­o­lence, there are crim­i­nal gangs, mili­tias, in­sur­gents, Ira­nian-backed groups and al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

U.S. forces are con­stantly un­der at­tack by road­side bombs, car bombs, small-arms fire, sniper fire, mor­tars and rock­ets fired by the en­emy. And who is the en­emy?

“If you are trav­el­ing in a Shi’ite neigh­bor­hood, it is the JAM (Jaish alMahdi, or Mahdi Army). If you are trav­el­ing in a Sunni neigh­bor­hood, it is AQI. If you are trav­el­ing in be­tween, it could be ei­ther one,” said Com­mand Sgt. Maj. Bjerke, whose 2nd Bat­tal­ion, 3rd In­fantry, Stryker Brigade Com­bat Team pa­trols sec­tions of the city al­most daily.

TheStryk­er­sarethe­quick-re­ac­tion force for all of Iraq and, in Bagh­dad are, con­duct­ing op­er­a­tions in ar­eas of Sadr City — the strong­hold of Sheik al Sadr — and in the Sunni heart­land of west­ern Bagh­dad, where al Qaeda is thought to be op­er­at­ing.

“Iraq is di­vided into many ter­ri­to­ries, like a pre-civil war,” said Has­san, who asked that his full name not be used for se­cu­rity rea­sons. Like many Iraqis, he is con­vinced that if the Amer­i­cans leave, full-scale civil war will break out within weeks.

Some­ofthe­safer­ar­eas­inBagh­dad are old, es­tab­lished mixed Shi’iteSunni neigh­bor­hoods where ev­ery­body knows each other.

Iraqis laughed at the idea of en­cir­cling neigh­bor­hoods with con­crete bar­ri­ers—apro­ject­thattheIraqigov­ern­ment re­cently halted in a Sunni area called Amariyah.

“It’s stupid to build a wall. Why seg­re­gateth­eSun­niand­makethem­think that ev­ery­one is fight­ing them?” said Has­san,aShi’ite.“In­the­com­ingyears, if I want to go to work, I will have to take ropes with me to climb over the walls,” he joked bit­terly.

Train­ing the fu­ture

Two-thirds of the U.S. sol­diers as­signed to the surge have ar­rived in Iraq. The num­bers will con­tinue to in­crease into the sum­mer months, and Pen­tagon of­fi­cials are talk­ing about ex­tend­ing the over­all ef­fort well into next year.

But the key to longer-term suc­cess in Iraq is the abil­ity of the Iraqi gov­ern­ment, the Iraqi mil­i­tary and the Iraqi po­lice to pro­vide ba­sic se­cu­rity and ser­vices to the peo­ple.

To that end, U.S. of­fi­cials say they are work­ing day and night to train the se­cu­rity forces and make the gov­ern­ment re­spon­sive to the peo­ple. They say a lot of progress has been made, even if it is not im­me­di­ately vis­i­ble.

Stryker Brigade bat­tal­ion com- man­der Lt. Col. Barry Hug­gins says he sees an “enor­mous change in the mind-set and ca­pa­bil­ity” of the Iraqi forces from two years ago. The Iraqi peo­ple, he said, “see what’s wrong. I see what’s dif­fer­ent.”

In 2004, U.S. forces did all the re­cruit­ing for the Iraqi army, built their bar­racks, pro­vided fuel and so on. Now, the U.S. has cut back its sup­port and the Iraqis are tak­ing the lead in sev­eral op­er­a­tions, he said.

But for the Iraqi peo­ple and U.S. sol­diers work­ing di­rectly with the Iraqi army, the per­cep­tions are dif­fer­ent. They say some Iraqi mil­i­tary units are bet­ter than oth­ers, de­pend­ing on their lead­er­ship, but over­all there is lit­tle con­fi­dence in the force. The Iraqi po­lice, heav­ily in­fil­trated by mili­tia par­tic­u­larly in Shi’ite ar­eas, are not trusted at all.

“When there is a U.S. and Iraqi con­voy, then it is good,” said Feras, whose neigh­bor­hood was hit by a num­ber of bombs in late April.

“But when it is the Iraqi army alone, they beat peo­ple up, they take money,atcheck­points­theyjust­lookat their cell phones, they don’t re­ally check the cars, they go home af­ter a few hours,” he said.

Cor­rup­tion, an ab­sence of na­tional iden­tity and a lack of un­der­stand­ing of lo­gis­tics and rule of law are ma­jor prob­lems and will need a lot more time to cor­rect, said U.S. sol­diers and train­ers.

“Lo­gis­tics are a re­ally hard sell,” said Staff Sgt. Brian Put­nam, op­er­a­tions non­com­mis­sioned of­fi­cer for the 2nd Bat­tal­ion, 8th Brigade, 2nd Na­tional Po­lice Di­vi­sion of the Na­tional Po­lice Train­ing Team for Sadr City.

“Things like track­ing mileage in the trucks so you know when to ask for gas. It’s a hard sell, but we con­tinue to ham­mer those things,” he said as he sat on a bare metal cot in a small com­mand out­post near the Shi’ite strong­hold.

Side-by-side train­ing is the only way­to­keep­im­prov­ingth­eIraqi­forces, he added.

Maj. Joe West, a Na­tional Po­lice Train­ing Team deputy team chief for the 8/2 Iraqi Na­tional Po­lice Brigade re­spon­si­ble for Sadr City, joined the con­ver­sa­tion with a large cup of cof­fee to say the dif­fi­cul­ties are deeper than that.

“Look at what you have now. It would­bealit­tlebit­toughtode­fineIraq be­yon­dits­bor­ders.When­peo­plei­den­ti­fy­fir­stand­fore­most­with­a­tribe,then re­li­gion, then where they live, then it’s pretty rough,” he said.

Sharon Behn / The Wash­ing­ton Times

‘Block-by-block’: Com­mand Sgt. Maj. Alan Bjerke and Spc. An­dres So­lis led a joint U.S.-Iraq mil­i­tary pa­trol through Bagh­dad. Lack of trust in the Iraqi gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary have made their bat­tle harder.

Sharon Behn / The Wash­ing­ton Times

U.S. sol­diers pa­trolled a mixed Shi’ite-Sunni neigh­bor­hood in Bagh­dad, where troops in small bases are in­creas­ing their pres­ence among the Iraqis.

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