JA’ARA, IRAQ — As has been seen in the last year in Iraq’s western Anbar Province, and as is beginning to be seen just north of Baghdad in Diyala, the Iraqi people — who, it goes without saying, have an even greater stake in their own security and in the success of their country than America does — are more willing than ever to stand up for themselves (and to stand with the coalition), if America will merely do three things:
1. Allow (and encourage) them to do so;
2. Stand unwaveringly behind them and to support them as they risk their own lives against the terrorists who target them as much as, if not more than, they target coalition soldiers; and,
3. Prove that what America has to offer the Iraqi people is a better option than that which the extremists, from al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to Muqtada al Sadr’s Jaisch al Mahdi (JAM), are offering.
In an area like that which surrounds Salman Pak, the city south of Baghdad that was once home to the famed terror training camp and which once neighbored the nuclear reactor destroyed by the Israelis in 1982, the process of “winning hearts and minds” and selling the Iraqi people on the three necessary actions addressed above can be much longer and more difficult than it is elsewhere.
Though strategically important due to the makeup of its terrain (the Tigris snakes through the region, and the fields there — though they appear to be nothing but powdery dust — are among the most fertile in central Iraq) and of its inhabitants (Shi’a farmers in the plains, and former Sunni aristocrats along the river), this region is one of many that was cleared of Iraqi military by the coalition during the initial invasion of 2003, and then virtually abandoned until the “Surge” of this year. It is currently being occupied by one of those five “Surge” Brigades, the 3rd Brigade of Georgia’s 3rd Infantry Division (or 3-3 Infantry), and the soldiers in that unit, who have been on site now for six months, have been tasked with the mammoth (and unenviable) job of turning around a region which, over the course of the last three years, filled up with AQI, Jaisch al Islam (JAI), JAM, and other sectarian and insurgent groups, all of which are constantly fighting amongst themselves and against each other, all the while terrorizing the civilian population.
Although ease is an extremely relative attribute in this case, hunting and killing the enemy in the Salman Pak region is in fact the easier part of the soldiers’ mission there. “Terrain denial” artillery missions are fired into known AQI areas on a nightly basis, attack aviation assets are constantly scouring the area and firing on militant outposts, and, with the launching of the division-sized Operation Marne Huskey on August 15, major air-and-land offensives are being conducted in virtually every known insurgent stronghold and outpost in the region.
Given this tactical reality, the fighting is the least difficult part for the American soldiers in the area. It is what they have been trained for, and what they have been preparing — both mentally and physically — to do their entire careers. Very few soldiers have been trained to carry out nation-building or ambassadorial missions, and in the case of an area like Salman Pak, which has seen a negligible troop presence since the initial invasion, there is no trust or rapport on which to improve or to build; rather, they must be created and constructed entirely from scratch. This is an infinitely more difficult (and time-consuming) process, but one which is absolutely essential to the coalition effort in Iraq — and the key to making it happen is demonstrating, on a daily basis, that the coalition has the best interest of the Iraqi people at heart — from security, to services, to medical care — both for the present and for the foreseeable future.
THE FIRST SIGNIFICANT SIGN OF SUCCESS resulting from the Army’s public relations campaign in the southern part of the region was seen very recently, in the area just north of Salman Pak, along the road known to 3rd Brigade as “Route Wild,” between the villages of Wuerdiya and Ja’ara — and it all began with a simple cell phone call. During the first week of August, an Iraqi man who lived in the area, whose brother was the sheik of their tribe (the “al Jabouri”), called Captain Rich Thompson, head of 3rd Brigade’s Baker Company 1-15 Infantry and the local ground commander, and asked for a meeting. Tired of the persistent insurgent infighting in his area — and of its effect on the people of his tribe and his village — the man wanted information on starting his tribe’s own “Concerned Citizens” brigade, to augment the National Police and to defend their land and their clan against terrorism.
Called “basically a thumb in the eye at a Maliki government that won’t get its [act] together” by one officer I spoke with, the Concerned Citizens program, another brainchild of MNF-I commanding General David Petraeus, puts ground-level security in the hands of the individual tribes and groups who need it most. The program, which has been implemented in other regions of Iraq as well (like Diyala Province), allows for members of individual tribes to arm themselves and to conduct their own security operations and patrols, provided that they agree to wear easily identifiable (and coalition-acknowledged) uniforms, to work with and respect the authority of the National Police and coalition forces, and to submit to being entered into the coalition’s biometric identification database.
“I hope they’re really serious about [this],” Thompson, a former enlisted Army Ranger, told me, as he prepared to attend the meeting with the leadership if the al Jabouri tribe. “If we can get them going with their own security, and the other tribes around them can see what a good thing they have and decide that they want it too, then we could see a serious improvement in this area.” Thompson’s view on the insurgency in Iraq is a very simple one: “I don’t want them in my AO (area of operations). I don’t care where they go, as long as they’re not here — and, if everybody takes that attitude, Iraqis and soldiers alike, and works for that goal, then sooner or later there won’t be any place for [the insurgents] to go.”
The premise of the Concerned Citizens program is simply the belief that citizen empowerment, backed by the coalition, will lead to a rejection of the forces that terrorize the civilian population in a given area. While the sweeping change in Anbar Province that accompanied last fall’s “Anbar Awakening” was in part a result of the tribal leaders in that area responding to the Marines’ daily efforts to build trust and rapport in the region, it was much more a response to the insurgents’ constant promise of no brighter future than the chaos that had become the norm in the area in recent years. Fed up with those who offered, in the words of one tribal sheik, “only death,” the leaders of those tribes made the eminently rational decision to rise up against the terrorists, and to work with the coalition to build a free and independent network of tribes and clans that is rapidly becoming a relatively united province once again — only without the iron fist of Saddam Hussein holding it together.
JUST TWO WEEKS AGO, Captain Thompson, along with a squad of soldiers from Baker Co’s 3rd Platoon, met with the representatives of the al Jabouri tribe. As we sat down in the living room of the house owned by the sheik and his brother, the men told us of how their tribe’s village had, in recent months, been the focus of insurgent attacks. Black scorch marks on the portions of the cement floor not covered by carpet, as well as on the walls (despite their recent plastering), backed up their story of fire having been set to their house in particular in recent months.
Thompson wrote down the information they offered about this and other past attacks, and thanked the tribal representatives — the sheik, his brother, and a pair of neighborhood gentlemen — for contacting him. “We’re here to help you,” he said. “Tell me what you need.” The brothers and their companions spent over an hour detailing the transgressions of the insurgency against their tribe and their village, from the fire to alleged kidnappings, and expressed a great interest in manning their own tribal security force. “We set up a police checkpoint for you right outside the neighborhood here,” Thompson reminded them, noting that crime and terrorism had gone down since then.
The sheik, though, was less than impressed with the work of the NPs — who, he noted, “only work from 7am to 5pm.”
“We need an army here,” he declared, “and you are not enough soldiers to keep us safe.”
Thompson very quickly explained the ground rules of the Concerned Citizens program, from the allowance for (but not provision of) AK-47s, to the uniform requirement, to the requisite stipulation that the armed guards must submit to the National Police and to coalition forces unquestioningly. The latter caused a bit of consternation on the part of the al Jabouri (a sizable portion of the NP force is believed to be corrupt), but the desire to secure themselves outweighed whatever concerns they might have had.
At the end of the meeting, Thompson agreed to return in the near future with money to purchase uniforms for the 60 promised guards, in exchange for their all being present at a formation so that he could input them into Baker Company’s biometric identification database. He also informed them that, in the next week, Baker Co. would be holding a “Med Op,” or a clinic for the villagers in the area. All sick and ailing were welcome to come, and coalition medics would treat them.
CONTRARY TO WHAT SOME in America may say, the insurgents — who target civilians in their homes, burn villages, torture and behead captives, and blow up innocent people on the street — are not this country’s “freedom fighters.”
Iraq’s real freedom fighters are these people — simple tribesmen and patriots who care enough about their futures to stand up and risk their lives protecting their homes, their families, and their neighborhoods by fighting against those terrorists.
Like the people in Anbar and, to a lesser degree at this point, in Diyala, more tribes in the Salman Pak area may see what the al Jabouri are doing with their own, coalition-sanctioned self-conducted security, and begin to want that for themselves.
Sometimes it only takes the slightest catalyst to get the ball rolling. If the example is set correctly and the movement, in concert with the myriad other efforts and foci of the coalition in Iraq, gains enough momentum, then it may be possible at some point in the not-too-distant future to speak realistically of a state of affairs in Iraq in which, to paraphrase Captain Thompson, there simply “isn’t anywhere for the insurgents to go.”