Turning enemies into friends

The declining violence in Baghdad is the good news from Iraq these days. I saw a chart last night that maps out the decline – and it’s powerful. I’m working on getting a copy of it that isn’t classified.

But as I said before, there’s more fighting to be done. Cracking down in the Capital city had the same effect as stepping on a jelly donut–all the mess went oozing out to the suburbs. One of the places that still needs to be cleaned up is a farming community just south of the city limits called Arab Jabour.

Enter the 3rd Infantry Division, whose job it is to mop up the remnants of AQI south of Baghdad. Today I stood on a rooftop that represented the limit of their advance in this effort, for the time being. Twelve miles from the city as the crow flies, this recently abandoned house looks out on scrubby, unkempt fields and a network of canals. On the other side of the waterway is still AQ country, and the soldiers who took this tiny compound via air assault operation only 24 hours ago don’t go outside without kevlar and body armor, ammunition locked and loaded in their weapons. They worked determinedly throughout the day, assisted by dozens of recently-converted “Concerned Citizens” who proudly displayed their bright orange vests along with aging but well-oiled AK-47’s. The objective – fortify the house and surrounding area before AQI remnants could attack.

I spent most of the night standing on the concrete roof of a house overlooking a wide canal. The squad of soldiers around me had the job of keeping an eye on a bridge several hundred meters away, which is the only crossing point for several miles in either direction. Just before dark, a small group of locals stopped by and alerted us to the presence of two IED’s near the bridge. An Explosives Ordnance Disposal team was dispatched, and just as the sun was setting, two thunderclaps were heard, and large black clouds of dust mushroomed skyward.

More local guys showed up, each carrying an AK, and in one case a 12.7 mm heavy machine gun larger than the guy carrying it. By the time it got dark the smell of food cooking was wafting upstairs. So I went to see what was for supper.

That’s how I found myself sitting with men who, until very recently, wanted to kill me.

The only lights in the room were an old oil lamp and a green chem light. Cigarette smoke hung thick in the air, and twelve men sat cross-legged on the floor, eating rice and vegetables with their hands from a common dish. I was the only westerner. The men were conversing in hushed, intense tones. One of them spoke English, and motioned for me to sit down. A youth appeared with a tray filled with mismatched cups and mugs full of a fragrant, steaming tea. I knew enough of Bedouin culture that I dared not refuse, even though it was likely the water wasn’t safe. Besides, it was below forty degrees outside – so the cup of warm, sweet liquid felt good in my hand.

The translator and I started talking. I asked if these men were sunni or shia. “There are some of each,” he replied. Even in the darkness, he could see my surprise, so he asked the group. Three of them were shia.

“How is it that you are here together?” I asked.

The translator, named Ulf, shook his head. “These men are so tired of the divisions, of the violence. We all worship Allah – the rest no longer matters. What matters is that we drive out Al Qaeda.”

“It’s been bad here, hasn’t it?”

Ulf nodded sadly, motioning toward one of the men. “Just today, the bad guys came and murdered that man’s sixteen year old brother.”

I already knew about that. I’d been there when the man received the news – and watched as he nearly went crazy with grief and anger. He’d tried to leave to go hunt down the perpetrators at that moment, but his friends convinced him that it was a trap – if he went, he too would be killed.

Ulf continued. “All of us here were also with Al Qaeda until recently. We fought the Americans. But those who led AQ in this area are not from here – they are Iranian. And when they started killing our families, we had had enough.”

I swallowed some of the thick, sweet tea, pondering the fact that if I’d been in this room with these men sixty days ago, I would be a dead man. The weapons leaning against the wall made me hope none of them was having second thoughts about leaving AQ. For some reason, that made me want to change the subject. “What do these men do for a living?”

Ulf spoke to them. One had been a carpenter. Most were farmers, but hadn’t really had work in almost two years. One man spoke angrily at length. Ulf translated. “He says Al Qaeda completely ruined his life.”

As the conversation continued, it became clear that there was an additional reason that encouraged these men to switch sides, as if having family members murdered wasn’t enough: It was money, plain and simple.

Someone high up in the U.S. military had a brainstorm earlier this year. Rather than try to compete with AQ philosophically…since that required overcoming thousands of years of cultural precedent…perhaps it would be quicker to just buy them.

It’s a strategy that’s been used before – When the Romans wanted to take the city of Petra, three emperors failed to do so by force until 106 AD when they essentially bought the city instead. This allowed it to flourish without having to rebuild after the catastrophic destruction of an all-out battle.

And so it goes here in Iraq. A mortar round brings fifty dollars. An IED, a hundred. Show us where a weapons cache is and you can make more in one day than most people make in a year. And we can hardly keep up with all the tips. Somebody should have thought of this a long time ago.

AQ used to pay people to put in IED’s. but we’re paying them more to dig them up, and making lots of friends in the process. If it sounds like that could get expensive, consider what just one Soldiers Life Insurance policy costs the government – several hundred thousand dollars. To say nothing of the pain and hardship it brings the families of the fallen.

So maybe I was wrong the other day when I said you can’t change a coyote. Maybe some of them can’t change, but if the coyote has a family to feed, in Iraq, you might be able to work a deal.

Let’s pray that more of these coyotes will see the light, and that they run out of explosives very soon.

Chuck Holton

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