Handing it over

Arab Jabour, Iraq
12 miles south of Baghdad

They call it simply “building 1006.” It’s a simple, mud-brick compound with two houses and a couple of outbuildings. But like most of the homes in this area, it’s been abandoned by its owners – driven out by Al Qaeda over a year earlier.A few cans of food are still in the cupboards, and a cheap plastic photograph of the Sydney opera house adorns the wall of the living room next to a drawing of the Kaa’ba in Mecca. In the hall, another photo is hung in a wooden frame -The New York skyline, including the twin towers. Looking at them, I wonder if the Iraqis who lived on this small farm hung the print before or after 9/11, and if they were ever struck by the irony of that photo in the years since.

The wide waterway in front of this house has been dubbed “Chevy canal” by the U.S. military. Part of the strategy that General Petraeus put in place to secure Baghdad was to stop the flow of explosives into the city. Intelligence showed that the road along this canal was a major avenue for AQ operatives, who were building Vehicle Borne IED’s (VBIED’s) in these villages around Arab Jabour and then driving them into Baghdad to kill and maim.

In 2005, America was struggling to get its head around how to combat these terrorists. Our troops were sequestered on large Forward Operating Bases around the country, from which patrols were sent daily to try and hunt down the enemy. But commuting to work in Iraq is a very dangerous proposition – as evidenced by the casualty figures: 65% of combat deaths here have been due to IED’s. Another problem was holding ground. The insurgents couldn’t win a direct fight with our forces, but they didn’t have to. When we rolled into a neighborhood, they would dress up like women and leave the area, (I’ve seen videos of this shot from UAV’s) only to return once our guys went back to the FOB.

The new strategy is to get away from the big base concept and have our troops living on smaller, more distributed patrol bases located in troubled neighborhoods. Our continued presence has made all the difference.

Building 1006 won’t be manned by U.S. forces, however. It’s part of the next phase of U.S. strategy: checkpoints and bases manned solely by Iraqis. And giving them ownership seems to be working…after U.S . troops took over this area a couple days ago, the concerned citizens came in to help build the checkpoint where they’d be living. I watched as 3rd ID soldiers and Iraqis formed a human chain to offload sandbags from a truck – it was a perfect picture of how Americans are handing Iraq back to its citizens.

My big question was whether or not these men would really take ownership or if they’d only stay as long as the Americans were footing the bill and doing the fighting. After all, I’d watched some of these ‘concerned citizens’ show up and report that an AQI member was hiding out in a house nearby. The American soldiers then asked, “Well, there are twenty of you…and only one of him. Why don’t you go get him and bring him in?” The Iraqis seemed hesitant. Finally, I cornered one of them and asked him point blank: “Why aren’t you willing to go after these guys yourselves?”

To the Iraqi, the answer was simple: “We feel like we need to ask permission first.” Also, the U.S. does not supply weapons or ammunition to these men – they have to buy it themselves. Many of them can only afford a few precious rounds of ammo. Their attitude seems to be, why fight when our American “big brothers” are here to do it?

Changing this attitude is a fresh challenge for our forces. The Iraqis see our soldiers as supermen…and in a lot of ways, they are. Our vast wealth, space-age technology and armor-clad soldiers seem mind-bogglingly advanced to these sandal-clad farmers sons. Why wouldn’t they want us to take care of business when we’re obviously so good at it?

The question remains whether or not these “concerned local citizens” will stand up for themselves once we leave. But one thing I witnessed makes me think they will.

After building 1006 was secured and lookout bunkers had been constructed on the roof, a young man showed up with a large Iraqi flag on a pole. The rest of the men got very excited discussing how and where it should be flown over their new outpost. In the end, a young man rolled the flag up, took off his shoes, and gripping the flag in his teeth, shinnied up a disused light pole to secure the flag atop it, to the cheers of the Americans and Iraqis alike.

After seeing that, I decided that these men were ready, at least in spirit, to defend their neighborhood, and their country, with or without our help. How long it will take to bring this idea to fruition is another question entirely.

Chuck Holton

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