Chiarelli preaches quality of life in Iraq
BAGHDAD — A top U.S. general toured one of Baghdad’s roughest Sunni neighborhoods Thursday to view the effects of a recent operation aimed at reducing sectarian fighting, urging commanders to improve quality-of-life issues for locals and resist feeding into sectarian divisions.
Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli accompanied soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, a Stryker battalion based at Fort Lewis, Wash., in Ghazaliya, a restive Sunni neighborhood known as a flash point for sectarian violence.
The tour included stops at an Iraqi army office, a local police station, a sewage project and a decrepit, shuttered strip mall where shopkeepers outnumbered customers.
At times blunt in his questioning of troops and people they met, Chiarelli said he believes — as he did in 2004, when he commanded the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad — that restoring essential services will improve security. To that end, he advised battalion commander Lt. Col. Van Smiley to improve quality of life in the area.
“You can’t do it with security alone,” Chiarelli said. “If you did, you’d have a police state. You’d have so much security people can’t even turn left or right.”
At the Ghazaliya police station — a frequent target because the police force is almost entirely Shiite, and is known to have been infiltrated by the Shiite Mahdi Army militia — Chiarelli listened as police transition team member 2nd Lt. Jeff Salzano described the situation.
Over half of the police station’s cars were rendered inoperable by roadside bombs, attacks or bad driving; the police chief does double-time as a Mahdi Army commander; and police patrols can’t go anywhere without security from U.S. or Iraqi army forces, as the people don’t trust them, he said.
But Chiarelli vehemently opposed a plan to bring in Sunni policemen to quell the suspicious locals.
“We’ve got to break this cycle,” he said. “All we are doing is contributing. I don’t even like the idea of getting Sunni cops in there.”
At a nearby construction site, some locals said a recent military operation dubbed Operation Together Forward to clear the area of sectarian violence had been successful.
“Before, the situation was really, really bad,” said Ahmed Shakr, a construction worker. “Now I feel safe talking to you.”
Others were less optimistic.
“Security hasn’t improved here,” said a shopkeeper who gave his name as Haider. “This new plan to do this search hasn’t really worked.”
Unsurprisingly, many locals professed fear of the Mahdi Army. The militia, locals and American officials say, has infiltrated many sectors of Iraqi government and is a known provocateur of sectarian violence. However, the Shiite-run government has not publicly condemned the militia.
“Something has got to happen to the militia,” Chiarelli said. “But that’s for the [Iraqi] government to decide what.”
When Chiarelli asked Ghazaliya resident Abdul Qadr what Iraqis needed most, the 55-year-old engineer made a most unusual request.
“We need love,” Qadr said. “Iraqis, one is against the other one. In Iraqi families, every single day a member of the family dies. Death has become something that is not a surprise.”