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From Iraq: A Tale of Two Boroughs

With the 1-4 CAV: On patrol with a modern-day "Band of Brothers" on the streets of Baghdad

On my trip to Iraq, I embedded with the 1st Squadron of the 1st Infantry Division’s 4th US Cavalry Regiment (based out of Fort Riley, Kansas). The 1-4 Cav (“Quarter Cav”), a brand new unit, was created in January of 2006, and arrived in Iraq for this, its first combat tour, in February of 2007. It contains a disproportionately high number of soldiers (officer and enlisted) who are on their first combat tour of any kind and, though they seem like seasoned professionals at this point, Privates with fewer than eighteen months in the Army abound in the unit’s platoons which are operating on the front lines in Baghdad.

"We are really like the 'Band of Brothers' in some ways," the 1st Brigade Combat Team's Public Affairs Officer (PAO), Major Kirk Luedeke, told me.
Just like the guys from the 101st Airborne Division depicted in [the miniseries], we are learning on the fly in the crucible of combat, and many of our team leaders and squad leaders haven't ever done this kind of thing before. But they're learning quickly and using sound judgment and leadership techniques each day. They're team leaders and squad leaders because their chain of command has recognized their potential and given them responsibilities that would normally have gone to guys with more time and deployment experience. The way we were constituted as a new brigade did not afford us the luxury of having a large percentage of experienced junior enlisted and NCOs, so we are a modern day 'Band Of Brothers' in that regard.

The squadron’s inexperienced nature has caused it to endure some rough patches while learning “on the fly” – especially from its mistakes. More rough times doubtless lie ahead, both as a result of this rawness and of the fact that, rather than being assigned to a single area of operations for the duration of its tour (a situation which would make sense, given that sustained presence is a key point in the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine personally authored by MNF-I commander General Petraeus), the unit will soon be assigned to its fourth separate AO in three-plus months, having its cavalry, reconnaissance, and light infantry capabilities replaced in the current area by lumbering Striker vehicles from the 2nd Infantry Division in Fort Lewis, and moving north into Dora proper to provide some much-needed help in that area. However, this is not to belittle the 1-4 Cav’s many successes, or the fact that its soldiers are quickly proving to be both capable warriors and fast learners.

The Quarter Cav’s current area of operations in Iraq is home to a diverse population. Working in East Rashid, a district in southwestern Baghdad and a part of the Dora quarter of the city, the 1-4 oversees an area which includes Sunni, Shi’a, and Christians, with a good portion of its eastern neighborhoods being mixtures of at least two of the three. The western portion of the district, though, is clearly defined along sectarian lines, with the area known as al Hadir, lying north of a street called “Yemama Road,” being predominantly Sunni, and the area south of the road, called Abu Dischir, being almost exclusively Shi’a, and heavily populated by members of the “Mahdi Army” (the Jaish al Mahdi, or JAM) – followers of Muqtada al Sadr.

Al Sadr and his followers have, of course, been in US headlines since 2004. The violently anti-coalition Shi’a cleric has sought for years to undermine US efforts in Iraq, both by fomenting violence against coalition troops and by refusing to cooperate in the efforts to govern Iraq effectively. His more recent public statements urging his followers not to cooperate with the coalition have hindered what was a bourgeoning coexistence between US troops and some areas heavily populated with JAM like Dischir. Despite this, and despite the fact that the Sadrists remain one of the most violently anti-coalition Shi’a sects, the Abu Dischir district appears to be an example of a fairly positive coexistence between US forces and the people in a JAM-heavy area.

Areas such as Dischir and other JAM-influenced districts are a difficult case for the coalition to deal with. A large part of the US’s recent mission has been to “win the hearts and minds,” so to speak, of the Iraqi people. This is not necessarily accomplished by trying to remake the Iraqis into flag-waving America lovers so much as it is by trying to get the Iraqis to accept not only that coexistence with US forces is superior to fighting against them, but also that the coalition can provide for them a quality of life that the sectarians and insurgents they are currently putting up with in their areas cannot. While this can work – and is working – in many areas (such as Anbar province), those controlled by JAM are another matter altogether. Their quality of life – from the cleanliness of their streets (no small issue in Baghdad, large parts of which appear to be one giant rubbish heap), to the safety of their neighborhoods – is assured by the JAM living there, and further enforced by the fact that many of the NPs, already majority Shi’a, are affiliated with JAM (though some cover their faces – illegally – when on joint patrols in the district, so as not to upset other Sadrists who might not look kindly upon their cooperating so completely with coalition forces).

Unlike many sectors in Iraq and in Baghdad, the people of Abu Dischir appear not only to have realized, at this point, that choosing not to fight Coalition forces results in Coalition forces not fighting them, but, more importantly, they appear to be acting on that realization. As a result, Coalition and joint patrols there are much more relaxed than elsewhere. While I was there, I felt almost uncomfortably safe, as I was mobbed by children asking for chocolate, for their picture to be taken, or for my camera. The neighborhoods seem happy, and the people appear to be living their lives in the best way that they can. Rather than sprinting from house to house, keeping as covered and concealed as possible (as is the case in al Hadir), the soldiers move calmly and almost casually through the streets. Though they are always prepared for the situation to change, the soldiers' ease of manner and movement belies a surprising sense of security while in the Sadrist district. "Nothing's going to happen to you here," said Sergeant First Class Edgy, the platoon sergeant for the second platoon of Quarter Cav's Alpha Troop. "It's a pretty calm place." Calm is, of course, a relative term, especially for SFC Edgy, who was the only member of his crew to walk away from a massive IED blast three weeks ago that killed his Humvee's driver and seriously injured his medic and gunner.

North of "Yemama Road," the dividing line between the two neighborhoods, is a different story altogether. Small arms fire echoes through the streets and alleys of the predominantly Sunni area of al Hadir almost constantly, and the 1-4 Cav lost their first soldier to a sniper in this area only a few weeks ago. The neighborhoods are largely deserted, with many houses having fallen into disrepair, and there is a tangible sense of despair among the people living amidst the ruins. The area is filthy, with piles of trash standing feet above the ground in the roads and on the sidewalks, creating ideal hiding spots for IEDs; while Iraqi companies have previously bid for the trash collection job there, a few shots fired by insurgents at the workers is enough to stop them from coming back.

The area has seen a high number of extrajudicial killings (EJK), with bodies being found regularly in abandoned houses when not simply dropped on street corners. The primary culprit for these EJKs, which are better described as cold-blooded murders, is thought to be Shias affiliated with the NPs--the primary weapon used in these killings, I was told, is a Glock 9mm pistol, the handgun issued to the National Police. The more grisly murders, though--and there have been some horribly mutilated corpses found in the area--are generally chalked up to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which has become well known for its brutality. While the JAM in the south appear to have some vision for the future--namely an independent, secure, prominent Iraq, free of western interference, and which follows al Sadr's brand of radical Islam--the goal of AQI is very simple: to cause as much havoc, to create as much turmoil, and to kill as many people as possible. "There may be some reconcilables" in JAM and other sects, Quarter Cav's commanding officer, Lt. Colonel James Crider, told me, "but the bottom line [on AQI] is that these are very bad guys who want to create as much chaos as they can."

What the West simply doesn't seem to grasp, he said, is that these terrorists cannot be appeased or brought into the political process. "They'll kill all the Shia they can," he said, "and then they'll kill all of the less-radical Sunni. And then, when there is nobody else left to kill, they'll start killing each other." In other words, the actions of al Qaeda in Iraq and their counterparts in various cells and sects are not--as is argued by some--simply a result of the American actions; no amount of appeasement, of apology, or of attempted reconciliation will cause them to renounce their brutal ways.

A very telling incident took place just recently in East Rashid. During a ribbon cutting ceremony for a newly refurbished school, with children in their seats waiting to begin class, AQI descended on the building from all sides and began firing on the U.S. soldiers, despite the fact that children were in the area and directly in the line of fire. The young troops of the 1-4 Cav fought off the assault, and class was conducted despite the inauspicious start to the school year for the poor children within, but the episode itself was very instructive about AQI and its methods. Terrorizing, torturing, and killing are simply what these people do; they are rotten to the core, and the only recourse the civilized world has is to destroy them.

The people of al Hadir themselves seem happy to see American troops. When I was participating in a patrol in the area, we were welcomed into homes and greeted happily, and as the day wore on and our presence continued, more people emerged from their homes to watch us from the street. With the presence of U.S. troops, the people apparently feelt safe enough to come outside--an obvious rarity in al Hadir. "Of course they're happy to see us," an officer with the 2nd Infantry Division told me. "When there are American soldiers on the street and in their house, they know nobody is going to come in and kill them."

"It's not the people themselves who want to fight us," said a soldier in Quarter Cav's Charlie ("Comanche") Troop. "The AQI and other insurgents are moving south into the area and causing havoc." LTC Crider considers this to be a major factor in the surge in JAM membership and activity in his Squadron's area of operations, saying that, in his opinion, "JAM mainly formed and grew [in Abu Dischir] as a defense against AQI," rather than as a force to oppose the Coalition. The influx of more insurgents into al Hadir from the north, and the continued shooting south across the northern boundary of al Hadir from Dora proper, combine to create a dangerous situation both for Iraqi citizens and for American troops, who constantly take fire of one kind or another when working in the sector.

Much of the violence in the region also originates from the mosques in the area. Shia and Sunni sectarians have fought bitterly between their separate neighborhoods, and one street, which featured a Sunni mosque on one end of the block and a Shia mosque on the other, was termed the "death zone" by soldiers who observed the heavy fire being exchanged daily between the two. Several mosques in the area have been destroyed, all by insurgent fighters; despite the unfounded perception to the contrary, the Coalition is still restricted from entering mosques--let alone firing on them--even when the enemy is known to be shooting from within. "When we see or suspect that illegal activity is taking place within a mosque," the 2 ID officer told me, "we have to stop what we're doing and get permission from Division to have the NPs go into the mosque, while we pull security outside. The Sunni mosques, the Shias are eager to go in and grab whomever they can. The Shia mosques, they'll usually go in and out, claiming that nothing was there. Go figure." In the case of one Sunni mosque, soldiers told me, a tip was given to the NPs that a boy was being held hostage there by private security guards; when the police detained the guards for questioning--thus leaving the mosque unguarded--Shia sectarians promptly burned it to the ground. By the time the authorities realized that the boy's abduction was a hoax, the charred remains of the mosque had been razed to the ground, leaving nothing but flat earth where the building once stood.

More than fifty insurgent and sectarian cells exist in Quarter Cav's area of operations. Though progress has been made in the brief time that the 1-4 Cav has been working in East Rashid--and many of the soldiers say that it has been both significant and obvious--the situation there is as fluid as it is everywhere in Iraq. Given the ongoing incursion of AQI and JAM hardliners into the area, a very large flashpoint between these two western neighborhoods exists and could be ignited at virtually any time. If and when that happens, the only question in Rashid--as in some other areas of Iraq--may be whether to put our soldiers in the middle of the fight, or to let these two sects, both of which are capable of extreme violence and brutality, wage war on each other in hopes that one or both will be permanently eliminated.

The progress the 1-4 Cav has made with its persistent presence in the area, despite being severely undermanned, could well continue with the arrival of the 2nd Infantry Division's Stryker brigade, which will begin to relieve them in place in the near future. The sheer manpower (with the number of personnel they can dismount, while still maintaining fully crewed vehicles for movement, patrolling, and protection) that 2 ID will be capable of putting on the streets will be far greater than that which the 1-4 Cav has available. However, the replacement of Humvees and frequent foot patrols with impersonal armored monstrosities seems more of a step back than a step forward in the battle to win over the trust and allegiance of the civilians in these neighborhoods. That goal is more easily accomplished by actually spending time with the people, getting to know them, and building relationships with them than it is by rolling down the streets in giant, threatening vehicles. The security factor may be higher in Strykers than in humvees or on foot, but the Coalition runs a risk in these neighborhoods that the replacement of human faces in with faceless armored shells will destroy the carefully crafted image of American soldiers as potential friends and protectors.

There is much work to be done throughout the country, and throughout East Rashid; after all, just to the north of Abu Dischir is a neighborhood which is as troubled as Dischir is settled. However, this area in the southwestern district of East Rashid has the potential to serve as a model of sorts for parts of Baghdad that are still struggling to reconcile their sectarian affiliations with a desire for a peace and security. It is not perfect, of course; Army intelligence reports indicate that Sadrist hardliners have been relocating here from elsewhere in Iraq, which could hurt the area's stability in the near future. Having gained a foothold in southwestern Baghdad, though, the coalition can use the example of this neighborhood to show the rest of the country that peaceful coexistence can be achieved between the Coalition and reconcilable sectarians, and to convince the Iraqi people that there is a better life possible should they decide to stand up to those creating chaos in their country. The Quarter Cav is doing their part on both fronts, conducting combat operations and public works projects. What is needed now is for the Iraqi people in other neighborhoods to follow that example, and to decide that they have had enough of JAM, AQI, and the other insurgent and sectarian groups that are actively preventing them from achieving a better life.

Jeff Emanuel, a special operations military veteran who served in Iraq, is a leadership fellow with the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia. In addition, he is an associate director of and a columnist for the Athens, GA Banner-Herald newspaper.

For the rest of Jeff's embedded reports, click here. To learn more about embedded reporting from Iraq, and what you can do to help make it happen, click here.


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