- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2007

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 last week — 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 parliament, 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 plan put in place by Gen. David H. 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 neighborhoods on the edge of the Sadr City slum, 1st Lt. Chris Alexander explained the theory to Capt. Ahmer, a national police officer who for security reasons would provide only one name.

“In the past, it was hard because units patrolled for security only. Now you see Americans living with you, in JSSes, so they can get to know the people 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 behind one or two rows of 10-foot-high concrete walls; in some cases, the windows are partly boarded up and guards are posted at the entries. Even then, the troops feel dangerously vulnerable: In recent weeks, at least three 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 Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain 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. The terrorists, the murderers, they are willing to do anything, no conscience, no remorse.

“We have got principles, and we are 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

Another feature of the new security 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 elegant white houses, swimming pools and golf courses. But these communities are sealed off by concrete walls and sandbags piled 6 feet high and guarded by police and military forces.

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

Overall rates of violence dropped in 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, 40 wounded and 1,087 detained.

On April 14, according to figures not 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, nine were found and detonated. 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 Saturday.

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 — which has failed to provide 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. “It is just like the head of a camel. What do you think if someone can bomb the parliament?”

He was referring to a major security failure on March 23 in which a suicide bomber managed to penetrate the 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.

One Iraqi officer, working alongside 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.

Command Sgt. 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 month for the privilege of having a job.

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 last week 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 dark-eyed young man in his 20s whose family lives in a mixed area that is constantly 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. soldiers in Baghdad, who admit 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.

There is sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi’ites, there is Sunni-on-Sunni 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 al-Mahdi, 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.

The Strykers are the quick-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.

Some of the safer areas in Baghdad are old, established mixed Shi’ite-Sunni neighborhoods where everybody knows each other.

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

“It’s stupid to build a wall. Why segregate the Sunni and make them think that everyone is fighting them?” said Hassan, a Shi’ite. “In the coming years, 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 commander 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, at checkpoints they just look at 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 way to keep improving the Iraqi forces, 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 would be a little bit tough to define Iraq beyond its borders. When people identify first and foremost with a tribe, then religion, then where they live, then it’s pretty rough,” he said.

Lacking trust

Many U.S. soldiers are frustrated with what they see as an Iraqi unwillingness to stand up for themselves against the insurgents, militias and gangs. They don’t understand why civilians will not inform more on the enemy working inside their neighborhoods or why the government is failing to take care of its own people.

Iraqis ask why they should trust an army that has occupied their country but has failed to provide any level of security or basic services despite repeated promises to that effect or trust a government that is corrupt and led by ministers who they say more interested in lining their pockets than saving their nation.

They also say that anyone who gives information — or their children — will get killed. The incentives to give information are just not there, they argue, and, for now, the militias do a better job of protecting the people.

“For the time being, I will need the Mahdi Army until you establish yourself and provide security legally,” said Walad, a butcher in one of Baghdad’s Shi’ite neighborhoods. “And as soon as security comes to our neighborhoods, we will not need JAM or the Americans.”

Obligated to support the elected government and its army, U.S. forces are sometimes sucked into sectarian divisions.

In one joint operation, Iraqi brigade commander Ghassan said the mission was to take away all the weapons — both legal and illegal — of a Sunni lawmaker in the neighborhood, and remove the concrete barriers around his house.

After many rounds of discussion with U.S. officers, the operation was changed so that the legislator’s bodyguards could keep their legal weapons, and removal of the concrete walls was postponed. Roughly a week later, the Sunni lawmaker’s home was attacked by gunmen, according to the Associated Press.

Overall, Iraqis still look to the U.S. military as the only force capable of quelling the killings and bombings in Baghdad, while violence has ignited across other cities in Iraq.

“Really, at the end of the day, if the average person does not believe they are more safe, then, it hasn’t worked,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Mellinger.

• Tomorrow: On patrol with U.S. troops

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide