MOSUL, Iraq — After a full two days of zigzagging this way and that, picking up Blackhawk flights here and Chinook rides there, I finally arrived in Mosul more than a bit disoriented. Army officers were kind enough to take me immediately to the dining hall for sustenance. (File under bad Jeff Foxworthy-esque riffs: You might be a sissy civilian if you can’t bring yourself to use the words “mess” or “chow.”) I was surprised at how thoroughly I was frisked and then again at how closely my credentials and passport were studied.
That is until I saw a giant, floodlight-lit granite monument to the more than twenty killed here when a suicide bomber in a purloined Iraqi Army uniform scaled a fence and blew himself up in the middle of the lunch rush. I remembered seeing it on television — the confusion of whether it had been a rocket or a mortar, the possibility of an individual infiltrating a heavily guarded base only coming up a day later — but had forgotten it occurred in Mosul. I looked at the commemoration: It was the one-year anniversary, a fact clearly not lost on a single soldier lining up that night.
It’s more than a slab of granite that commemorates these sacrifices, however. After a year that saw all too much bloodshed — a near complete defeat of the (now reconstituted) Iraqi police forces at the hands of insurgents, almost non-stop attacks on American soldiers and Iraqi civilians, suicide bombers, and snipers creating havoc — some hope is finally bubbling up to the surface in Mosul. It still isn’t a place where a Westerner can exactly walk down the street to buy a cup of coffee (or, more likely, chai), but the frequency of attacks are down significantly, the city’s civil government is slowly getting on its feet, civilian cooperation with Iraqi and coalition forces is increasing, and when speaking with either Iraqis (be they Sunni or Kurd) on the street or military officials there is a general feeling that the terrors of today are not forever.
“I think Mosul is probably going to be one of the first cities we hand over to full Iraqi control,” Lt. Col. Alan Kelly, commander of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, told me and he should know — Kelly is the type of commander that spends most days in the field, interacting with Iraqis and being intimately engaged with the situation on the ground. His dual dedication to American democratic ideals and heartfelt concern for ordinary Iraqis is evident in any interaction. “There are pockets of westernization that are expanding and having a moderating effect. The vast majority of the people in Mosul are ready for the city to grow beyond this conflict.”
IT’S A MORE COMPLICATED TRANSITION than it first may appear. As violence decreases in the city the paradigm of how the military approaches it must change as well. Reasonable people of most backgrounds will give stricter measures and tactics some degree of leeway in the middle of a guerrilla war. Keep those measures in place too long after the threat has begun to diminish, however, and the populace will quickly lose patience. The options for civil control then devolve broadly into a form of an oppressive police state or surrender to anarchy, neither conducive to a democratic system, which, as we’ve all heard, is what the United States is attempting to leave behind in Iraq. Mosul is a less dangerous city than it has been in some time. What’s to be done?
Here’s a small example of what I’m talking about: In Mosul the Stryker armored vehicles U.S. soldiers patrol the city in have for some time now carried signs in Arabic warning other drivers that if they come within a certain distance deadly force is sanctioned. Whenever an Iraqi car came too close, the Stryker would sound an ear-shatteringly loud horn to warn them off, before ratcheting up into more extreme measures to defend against deadly suicide car bombers. Now soldiers are holding back on the horns and even sitting in regular deadlocked Mosul traffic with everyone else. On one patrol the Stryker I was riding in got caught up in a large chanting mob of students demonstrating against increasing fuel prices. While the waves of angry people added to the tension of sitting idle, the crew waited it out, and by doing so helped create an environment where people are less afraid to express themselves.
“We train hard to go hard, so it’s very challenging to get a young soldier to slow down, especially if he was in a vehicle that was hit by an IED the night before or if one of his buddies just got shot,” Kelly acknowledged. “But it’s necessary. The cumulative effect in the city of the little things we do on the ground to help or hinder people can be tremendous.”
In other words, it pays to make friends, especially in a city where human intelligence on insurgent activity comes almost exclusively from local citizens.
“The challenges soldiers are facing here today are similar to the ones soldiers had to face after the initial invasion when this went from a full combat situation where everything that came at you was a target to an insurgency that hides in the civilian population,” Capt. Lawson Bell explained. “Now as the insurgency hopefully winds down, building trust and bridges is going to require some vulnerability on our part and less of an offensive footing in some instances. You can’t gain trust if you never get out of the Stryker.”
IT’S A TACTIC THAT’S WORKING. Ironically, the issue that might prevent U.S. troops from withdrawing from the city as quickly as they might hope is not lack of trust in American occupiers, but a lack of trust in those set to replace them. In Sunni sections of Mosul and elsewhere distaste for the occupation is oftentimes tempered by fears of Iraqi Security Forces excesses. One of the most frequent complaints I heard from Sunnis throughout Northern Iraq was that they believed many Sunnis were being detained based on false charges motivated by desire for revenge.
“Tonight, I’ll be going on a raid, looking for terrorists with the Iraqi Army,” Captain Ed Matthaidess explained to one Sunni who approached him with this concern during a patrol. The man gave the thumbs up sign and nodded his head in vigorous assent. “There is a legal process. I cannot just take someone in because I think he makes bad chai. Neither can the Iraqi Army. We have to go to a judge with evidence. And if we go, and I search the house and find nothing, chances are they won’t be taken in. If we do find something bad they will be tried by Iraqi lawyers and judges. Captain Matt doesn’t put them in jail. Representatives of all the Iraqi people put them in jail.”
“Let Americans arrest people, not the Iraqi Army,” the man said without missing a beat. “Americans are better. They are fair.”
“The Iraqi Army has to follow the same rules we do,” Matthaidess said. “Over time you are going to see less and less Americans patrolling your streets, and you shouldn’t be afraid. Iraqi Army and police are getting better everyday.”
The Sunni gave a half smile and crooked his head in a way that indicated doubts didn’t just linger; they fairly danced across his war-weary face.
While Captain Matthaidess is certainly right that Iraqi forces are improving, few claim things are perfect or that Sunni fears are completely unfounded. On raids and patrols, American forces still are often reining in sometimes overzealous Iraqis. Kelly was sanguine with regard to the progress and said some degree of patience would be necessary.
“Culturally, we’re perceived as weak by a lot of Iraqis because we talk things out and follow rules our enemies would never even consider following,” he said. “That’s okay. It’s going to take time to change the culture and so we just have to be the best example we can be of the values we hold.”
ORDINARY IRAQIS ARE NOT ALONE in their distrust of Iraqi police forces. While most American soldiers will have some measure of praise for the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi Police are typically spoken of with considerably less praise. It probably didn’t help that while I was in Mosul there was a rumor circulating that upon witnessing two insurgents planting a roadside bomb during a patrol, a ranking Iraqi Police commander in the city told his officers to stand down, thusly: “Do not worry: It is not meant for us.”
“They’re more than happy to let some infidel Americans get killed to keep the heat off their backs,” one soldier grumbled. “The Iraqi Army would never just let that go. We couldn’t get a lot of these police officers to show up to work six months ago. Now they’re reliable? Many of them probably are, but not enough to keep me from worrying about what the rest are up to.”
The overarching theme of his tenure in Mosul, Kelly said, is that while securing the present is paramount, a true victory in Iraq will require keeping one eye on the future.
“So much of our focus when we’re out on the streets is on the kids,” Kelly said, pointing out that on some days his men pass out Beanie Babies or soccer balls more often than they fire their guns. “We hope the next generation will look back on Americans and what we did here, despite the unavoidable tragedies that occur in every war, as something that improved their lives. Those kids growing up now are the ones who will really embrace democracy and make Iraq a place that flourishes again if we do our job right.”