- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2005

MUQTADIYA, Iraq - U.S. forces view Iraq’s constitutional referendum in less than two weeks as a dress rehearsal for the day when America’s presence fades and Iraqis take charge of protecting their fragile democracy.

To help prepare for that day, Staff Sgt. Hilario Dominguez teaches a platoon of young Iraqi soldiers how to control an angry crowd without casualties.

“The best thing to do is just detain them,” Sgt. Dominguez of Okeechobee, Fla., explains as his American platoon demonstrates what is known as a “graduated response.”

The goal: to bring an excited crowd under control with no one getting hurt.

“Show the crowd your weapons. If they don’t disperse, shout. Tell them to stop, go away, whatever. Physically push them away, if necessary. Use the least amount of force,” Sgt. Dominguez explains as long shadows from the eucalyptus trees of forward operating base Normandy slowly disappear with the setting sun.

“If that doesn’t work, arrest the instigator. We don’t want everyone to be so scared that they don’t want to vote. If you’re shooting up in the air or beating people up for no reason, they’re going to be scared to vote,” Sgt. Dominguez says.

An interpreter repeats his words in Arabic, and the Iraqi soldiers begin to talk among themselves until one speaks up.

“There are no demonstrations in Iraq like this. They’d just use a bomb,” one says.

It is dusk, and temperatures have begun falling from their daytime highs of more than 100 degrees in the lush Diyala River valley 54 miles northeast of Baghdad.

The river runs along the base and the adjacent regional hub of Muqtadiya, a small city that serves a sparsely populated region of about 300,000.

The Diyala gives the region its nickname, “breadbasket,” for the abundance of grapes, pomegranates, dates and livestock that its waters support.

Bombings were not part of today’s lesson plan. But Sgt. Dominguez, 27, seizes the moment to drive home the importance of his instructions.

“If a bomb goes off, there’s going to be a big crowd of people trying to get in,” he says. “You’re going to have to keep order. If you start shooting, then no one will come out and vote.”

For emphasis, Sgt. Dominguez adds that he has a personal stake in the success of Iraq’s transition: If no one votes, he says, “then I can’t go home.”

For many members of Task Force 1-30, the unit of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade that is assigned to Normandy base, this is their second tour of duty in Iraq.

The division led the charge from Kuwait to Baghdad in the spring of 2003. It is back in Iraq with a new mission, to help build a professional Iraqi army capable of fighting an escalating guerrilla war with terrorists and insurgents.

Here and elsewhere, Iraq’s army and a separate Iraqi police force are in training to take over from the 140,000 U.S. troops.

Men such as Col. James H. Coffman Jr., senior adviser to an Iraqi special police commando brigade, are in charge of making the plan work.

Col. Coffman received the Distinguished Service Cross for leading a team of Iraqi commandos sent to rescue a police station that was under siege during the November battle of Mosul.

Though the battle is remembered for the Iraqi police who ran away, Iraqis under Col. Coffman’s command stood their ground.

Rocket, mortar and machine-gun fire killed 12 Iraqi commandos and seriously wounded all but one of those who survived, including Col. Coffman. He continued to fight with one hand badly wounded and useless — at times the only one able to return fire — until reinforcements arrived four hours later.

The colonel, a West Point graduate, kept fighting until the battle ended and made sure he was the last soldier evacuated for medical treatment.

“He was treating the fallen, he was fighting and he lifted the spirits of our soldiers,” Iraqi Police Maj. Gen. Adnon Thabit told guests at Col. Coffman’s medal ceremony in August. “The blood that you shed will never be forgotten. It will be written in the history of Iraq with shining letters.”

Tiger Battalion

The U.S. task force at Normandy base lives and works with the 2nd Iraqi Army’s “Tiger Battalion.”

One week earlier, Iraqi and American soldiers came under fire while patrolling Himbus, a village of mud huts and concrete houses about five miles away.

The operation began with a tip about weapons buried in an orchard, which sent Iraqi and American troops to search the area.

They found nothing. But as the trucks rolled out, a rocket-propelled grenade screeched from a nearby palm grove, followed by a barrage of rifle fire.

That began a cat-and-mouse battle, with American and Iraqi forces returning fire at an unseen enemy that would shoot, move and shoot again.

The joint force arrested four suspects in a house-to-house search before returning to base. There were no casualties, but on the way home, a bomb placed in their path blew out four tires of a Humvee, which had to be towed back to base.

The attack will not go unanswered.

Two weeks later, Lt. Col. Roger Cloutier of Lewiston, Maine, and Col. Theya Abed Ismail al-Tammimi, a former officer in ousted dictator Saddam Hussein’s army, huddle together to plan a large raid into Himbus to kill or capture insurgents.

Col. al-Tammimi’s intelligence officers have developed several leads on where to look.

Over a swimming pool-size model of the village sculpted in sand, Col. Cloutier gives instructions to American and Iraqi officers, who will lead their men into battle.

“Once we have the city set,” Col. Cloutier says, “that area belongs to the Iraqi army. No American forces will move into the town without talking to me first. Once they’ve cleared the city, do not shoot into the city.”

Directing his attention to the Iraqi officers, Col. Cloutier offers words of reassurance. “I know the Tigers are strong. If you need combat power, I have a platoon ready to support you.”

Moving out

Shortly after 2 the next morning, the American-Iraqi convoy moves out, Americans in armored Humvees and Iraqis in the beds of open pickup trucks.

The moon sinks low on the horizon under a canopy of stars when the deafening blast of a roadside explosion sends shrapnel and debris flying at Iraqi soldiers in one Toyota pickup.

The front window is shattered. Tracer fire lights up the night sky and bullets ricochet off trucks.

Gunners from the 1-30 fire machine-gun rounds into palm groves that provide ready cover for the enemy.

After about an hour, Col. Cloutier calls into headquarters to report two insurgents killed, possibly the same men who detonated the roadside bomb as the convoy drove past, plus one dead donkey.

“Today was the first time I shot something that hit the ground,” said Sgt. Luke Buccholz, 24, of Paonia, Colo. “It was a donkey. I don’t want to go down as an ass killer.”

Luckily, no one was hurt except for minor cuts and bruises suffered by the Iraqis who had been blown out of their truck. They climb back in, and the convoy proceeds.

They enter Himbus, a village of about 3,500, under cover of darkness and begin moving door to door.

They knock at the front gates of the courtyards that typically surround an Iraqi house. If no one answers, they climb over the gate, unlatch it and let their fellow soldiers in.

They wait long enough to let the women cover themselves before moving inside, looking for young and middle-age men whom they suspect are part of the insurgency. The raid nets one prisoner and one rocket-propelled grenade with its launcher.

As dawn breaks and roosters crow, Col. al-Tammimi announces in Arabic over a loudspeaker for the entire town to hear:

“We have arrested some of the terrorists who kill people in your area. Our aim is to arrest these bad guys who fight the Iraqi army and [who fight against] justice, freedom and democracy in Iraq. We’re sorry if we have caused you trouble, and Himbus is still a good place in our hearts.”

Securing a future

With the sun up and the town secure, Col. Cloutier and his men walk through town with Capt. Wahab of the Tiger Battalion. Humvees with soldiers manning mounted machine guns drive slowly, offering cover to the soldiers on foot.

Like most Iraqi soldiers interviewed for this article, Capt. Wahab prefers that only his rank and first name be used.

He and others like him have chosen a career with the new Iraqi army and have cast their future on the success of America’s “nation-building” effort.

They will be here in Iraq long after the Americans leave and, most likely, they and their families will be targets for terrorists and insurgents for years to come.

Col. Cloutier appreciates the mission just performed by his Iraqi colleagues, and his growing confidence in the ability of Iraqi forces to take charge is evident as he turns to Capt. Wahab.

“The people know that the Iraqi Army is strong. Now they will think twice before they attack us,” Col. Cloutier says.

Exit strategy

The American exit strategy from Iraq depends on the ability of Iraqi soldiers such as those under the command of men like Col. al-Tammimi and Capt. Wahab to gradually assume the duties now performed by 140,000 U.S.-led coalition forces.

Initial disappointment over the performance of Iraqi troops going to the first battle of Fallujah in the spring of 2004 have given way to a belief among American forces and their Iraqi understudies that the plan is working.

During a month spent with Iraqi and American soldiers at Normandy base, this reporter was able to witness the training, day-to-day interactions with local leaders, the tension that follows each ambush and lighter moments of friendship between Iraqis and Americans.

Bonding prevails in a shared life. When the danger of battle passes, shared laughter readily fills the void.

“We are their friends, first and foremost,” says Capt. Michael Whitney, 29, of North Bend, Ore. “Once you build that personal relationship, and something happens, it would be a personal offense to them.”

Building trust begins on the base, says Capt. Whitney, commander of Task Force 1-30’s Alpha Company. “Here I have the luxury of spending time with them. It’s not limited. Personal relationships always come first.”

One evening, the soldiers of Alpha Company and their Iraqi army sibling Muqtadiya Company broke bread at a feast of grilled fish that they had caught that morning in the Diyala River, which snakes along one edge of the 2.5-square-mile base.

“A meal like this is a blessing from God,” says Lt. John Newton, 31, of Hague, Va. “I get e-mails from my friends back home. They watch the news every day, and they worry for me. I wish they could see me right now.”

His colleague, Lt. Talib, concurs while reaching with a piece of fresh-baked bread for a scoop of catfish, tomatoes and onions from a shared platter.

“We get the same thing. Our families see things on TV, but they would never guess that we are eating and swimming and fishing,” he says.

‘Build, not fight’

Two days after the raid into Himbus, Col. Cloutier and Col. al-Tammimi sit down with a group of sheiks from the region in a building just outside the base. The sheiks ask for help with local problems. Security woes and high unemployment go hand in hand.

Col. Cloutier pulls the microphone close.

“I came here to build, not to fight. But the more time I spend fighting, the less time I can spend on schools and roads. Attacks here were going way down until about a month ago. The terrorists are afraid of what is happening in Muqtadiya.”

The sheik from Himbus takes the opportunity to ask the two colonels: “Why are you raiding my village? These are my uncles and cousins.”

Col. al-Tammimi’s reply begins with a handful of photographs:

“Here are pictures of your uncles and cousins in Syria,” he says, showing pictures of foreign fighters who had joined with locals in the village.

“Here are pictures of your uncles and cousins with the weapons we found in their homes.”

The sheik’s long robe ruffles ever so slightly as he steps forward to examine the photos. “OK, now you’ve got me,” the sheik says, throwing up his hands.

His words still hang in the air when gunfire erupts down by the river several hundred yards away. Iraqi and American soldiers, joined by Iraqi police, scramble to take up positions.

Col. Cloutier wounds one man who is shooting from the river bank. Then, he gives instructions: “Let’s let the Iraqi Army fight this fight,” he says.

“Let these guys know we are supporting them. They are not alone. Remember, these guys are in unarmored pickup trucks.”

Endgame

At some point, the entire base will be turned over to the Tiger Battalion, and many of the American soldiers here will move on to the next mission, elsewhere in Iraq and then back to their families in the States.

Capt. David Smith, 30, of Grand Rapids, Mich., and the Military Transition Team he leads will remain behind, to serve as both a liaison to the Americans and to continue mentoring Iraqi units.

During missions, Capt. Smith will serve as an observer, and when the Iraqis need backup or bigger firepower, he will be able to call in the Americans.

“I’m here for one thing, and that’s to make these guys better. Everything else is gravy after that,” he says.

In the days before the Oct. 15 referendum on the proposed constitution, soldiers in the Tiger Battalion will help distribute election material, including printed copies of the constitution that voters will be asked to ratify.

“We all know the elections are coming,” Capt. Smith tells Iraqi officers. “These are very important for the future of your country. Once we get copies of the constitution, it will be printed in newspapers and broadcast on television.

“I need you to encourage your soldiers and the Iraqi people to vote. Tell them that it doesn’t matter how you vote but that you vote. But you must read [the constitution].”

He then repeats a warning that one often hears in Washington from President Bush and others — an upsurge in attacks is likely in the days ahead.

“We are looking for the bad people who want to disrupt the election. Be listening for those people and be ready for your missions. You must be ready to fight,” Capt. Smith says.

“Make sure your soldiers wear their equipment and they are ready to shoot, because [the terrorists and insurgents] are going to shoot at us.

“It is very important that we show that the Iraqi army and Iraqi police are working together to provide security so they are not afraid to vote.

“Our job is to help you and to watch your soldiers. It is merely a tool to see what you may need help with. It’s nothing bad, so please don’t be offended. It is good to have other eyes.”

Lt. Newton, the executive officer of Alpha Company, has been tapped to observe one pre-election mission in the Khalis, a town near Baqouba, about an hour’s drive from base.

The Tiger Battalion fans out into the neighborhood, and Lt. Newton watches as teams of Iraqi soldiers knock on each door.

An Iraqi lieutenant holds a list of names of wanted people. They hand out fliers with phone numbers to call if the residents witness any trouble.

As a former Army Ranger instructor, Lt. Newton is comfortable with his role as both an observer and an evaluator.

“Almost as important as checking the names on the list is getting the flier out and showing the people here that they are capable of securing the area,” he says.

As the mission concludes, Lt. Newton and First Sgt. Thomas Hitch, 30, of Columbus, Ohio, pause to chat with their Iraqi comrades.

Lt. Newton turns to his Iraqi counterpart, Lt. Haydar to ask if he is tired.

“We are never tired. No sleep,” Lt. Haydar replies in English.

“I guess that’s how Iraqis express their hooah,” Sgt. Hitch says.

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