And does he think the calm in the city can last?
“Our experience tells us that as fragile as reconciliation is in Iskandariyah, it will take something really big to break it down,” he said.
Sheik Abdul-Ameer al-Wajid and 1st Lt. Eric Zellers hugged and kissed before the Iraqi complained that the 24-year-old West Point graduate had not been to see him in three weeks.
“How could a friend do that to a friend?” said the sheik, assuming a hurt expression and peering from behind tinted glasses.
Sheik al-Wajid, 65, and his son, Wissam, run a group of 200 Shi’ite fighters who have joined the Americans in Iskandariyah to fight Sunni and Shi’ite militants.
The sheik is typical of community leaders who have offered the Americans loyalty and inside knowledge of the region in exchange for wages for themselves and their armed neighborhood guards. Such communities with guards to support U.S. troops across Iraq received more than $200 million through July.
Lt. Zellers, an engineer, is among hundreds of young American officers in Iraq implementing a new strategy that focuses on financing small projects such as fish and poultry farms to generate jobs and win good will for the U.S.
“Iraq is so complex. It is not easy to work here or get things done,” Lt. Zellers said before he heard a lengthy list of complaints about problems the sheik faces running U.S.-backed armed checkpoints.
Lt. Zellers, who is from Battle Creek, Mich., wanted to weed out some lazy or incompetent men on the sheik’s neighborhood guard.
“Obviously, we must start firing people. I will do it. Just put together a list of names and I will take care of it,” Lt. Zellers said. “I am tired of talking.”
The sheik was afraid of losing face with his clan.
“Give me the power and I will have them beaten up or jailed,” he suggested.
Lt. Zellers nixed that idea. Then came the announcement that dinner was ready, and Iraqis and Americans dug into rice, lamb and chicken served on communal platters, ending any discussion of firing the sheik’s clansmen.