CAMP RAMADI, Iraq — The Manchus of the 2nd Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment are meeting their neighbors in Iraq, a task that tests soldiers’ off-road driving and navigation skills in one of the largest areas of operation in the country.

The Manchus arrived in Iraq earlier this month as part of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team Strike Force, which left bases near South Korea’s Demilitarized Zone in August. Their area of operations in Iraq is a vast expanse of desert and farmland, comprising 3,500 square miles with few cities.

One of the Manchus’ first tasks was to introduce themselves to the locals, a first step in a process designed to gather intelligence and assist civil affairs project planning.

Soldiers from 1-9’s Company A and Headquarters and Headquarters Company drove deep into the rural Iraqi heartland with the goal of meeting a powerful sheik. The sheik is a tribal leader to thousands of Iraqis living in his community and owns a strategically important service station on a main supply route, explained one of the HHC soldiers, 1st Lt. Kevin Morris, 24, of O’Fallon, Mo.

The Manchus had a map, Global Positioning System coordinates for the sheik’s house and a soldier who had worked in the area for almost a year guiding them, but it was still hard to find.

Once their convoy of Humvees left the main road, it entered a maze of sandy farm tracks that wound between ploughed fields and irrigation canals. The roads often dead-ended in somebody’s back yard. In other places, power and phone lines strung from trees hung low over the road and got tangled in the Humvee antennas.

It was the first time Company A Humvee driver Pfc. Balthazar Delgado, 19, of Corpus Christie, Texas, had tested his skills on Iraq’s roads.

“I was surprised by the terrain. There were [canals] on the side of the road that you could fall in,” he said.

The dust kicked up by the Humvees made the drive even more dangerous since it was hard to see vehicles in front, he said. Eventually, the convoy reached the sheik’s house, an elaborately carved stone building with a large grassy lawn and date palms growing nearby.

“It is not like working in South Korea,” Morris said. “You can’t just pick up a phone and call these people. You have to go out and see them and hope they are home.”

Before approaching the sheik’s house, the young lieutenant — who is the Manchus’ civil military operations officer — was nervous about the reception he might receive. U.S. forces had not visited the man in several months and it was not clear whether he supported or opposed the new Iraqi government, he said.

But it was not the sheik who came to the door to greet the Manchus. It was his 18-year-old son, Adel Sala Dari, who told the soldiers his father was in Baghdad. Morris introduced himself to Dari and his two young brothers. The boys got a plate of chow hall cookies and a soccer ball from the soldiers.

Through a translator, Dari said he was on holiday from his job as a frontier guardsman on the Jordanian border. The young Iraqi said he was optimistic about his country’s future but that there were some problems with infrastructure in his community.

“Right now, there is no power and no water,” he said pointing up at a tangle of electrical wires hanging from a nearby tree.

Electricity supply in the community is erratic and locals drink water from the same local streams and canals from which their animals drink, Dari said.

“Sometimes the water makes them sick,” he added.

Morris told Dari that he would visit again to talk to his father and that he would look into the problems with water and electricity. Previous units have already done a lot of work to restore schools, electricity and water to the area, he said.

“There is more money to spend here but because of the transfer of authority, it has to go through the Iraqi government,” he said.

Even though the sheik was not there Morris seemed happy to have established contact with some of the locals. The positive attitude of the sheik’s sons was a good start, he said.

“Just because his kids are friendly doesn’t mean the sheik will be friendly, but it is a good sign,” he said.

Another soldier interacting with the Iraqis was Sgt. Harry Burgess, 27, of Indianapolis, Ind. Burgess is a forward artillery observer, but since Manchus do not expect to call for artillery often, he is also responsible for civil affairs work. He has been impressed by the positive response of the Iraqis he has met so far, he said.

“The children are always waving and giving us the thumbs up and a lot of the older people I have met have also been positive,” he said.

Iraq is a chance for Manchus to experience another culture but the view they get will be limited, he said.

“I am loving going out to talk to people, meet people and see how they are living, but in South Korea it was better because you could go out and see what the culture is like. Here you are on a team on a mission so you don’t get to engage with the culture as much,” he said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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