Community relations at a standstill
Stars and Stripes April 4, 2008
BAGHDAD — The Bradleys thundered unexpectedly into the Shurta neighborhood of Baghdad on Wednesday. They sealed off a couple of streets that had been the source of gunfire during last week’s fighting. Then the vehicles dropped their ramps, and soldiers flooded the city blocks.
The men pounded on the gates, entered when the homeowners beckoned them inside and then searched every room of the house for illegal weapons or details that could help them combat those who attacked checkpoints. The goal: Uncover any insurgents and develop reliable sources who might help them in the future.
Such “cordon and knock” searches are one of two staple operations for the soldiers of Company C, 4th Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment. But heavy fighting in the area has caused a temporary halt to their other, softer standby — the humanitarian missions.
The unit’s last humanitarian mission was March 9 when soldiers accompanied Iraqi National Police as they delivered desks and other supplies to local schools. Shiite militants began attacking Iraqi security forces early last week, forcing the U.S. unit to concentrate instead on making sure the area is safe, said company commander Capt. Mike Berriman.
Unlike humanitarian missions, search operations fulfill some functions crucial even after the fighting. They tell the neighborhood that Iraqi and U.S. forces are still in town and that they haven’t run away.
They also get the soldiers into the community to talk with people, develop intelligence and identify enemies. For example, the soldiers found no large weapons caches during Wednesday’s search, but they were able to confirm some key information they could use in future operations.
“We want to get a better sense of the security situation before we begin the humanitarian missions,” Berriman concluded.
The loss of these humanitarian missions has hurt the Iraqi people, Berriman said. The most obvious loss is in actual physical property like school supplies or services like medical care that they are no longer receiving. Pfc. Robert Sacco recalled how bare the schools were and the lack of functioning restrooms.
“I think they appreciate it,” he said. “A lot of the schools we go to, they just have nothing.”
Yet there’s a less tangible cost as well. The U.S. soldiers usually did the humanitarian missions with soldiers from an INP battalion. The local INP battalion commander is the link between the people and their government, Berriman said. His visits are an opportunity for people to air their grievances to a government official who has some influence that could help solve those problems. With both the INPs and Americans focusing on security, residents no longer have this channel.
First Lt. Matt Lacki, the platoon leader who led Wednesday’s search, said no one has yet confronted him about the drop in humanitarian missions. However, Shurta residents did complain to the soldiers about the closing of local businesses during the fighting. Each time, the soldiers responded that they should blame the insurgents, who the soldiers said started the fighting in the first place — a similar view to the one they take with the halt in humanitarian missions.
Berriman understands the searches could alienate some people, but he said the soldiers mitigate that by searching many houses. This provides cover for those who want to cooperate with coalition forces, and it gives homeowners more time to develop a cover story before “criminal elements” check in to see what they said.
Berriman does not foresee a long-term pause in humanitarian missions for his company. Based on his gut feeling after Wednesday’s operation, he could see them resuming in as little as two weeks.
But last week’s fighting has forced a greater emphasis on shoring up Iraqi National Police checkpoints, he said. They need more walls, more Hesco barriers, more sandbags. Soldiers will be able to move on to humanitarian missions only when they’ve finished those improvements.