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Soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the 37th Armor Regiment, 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division patrol the streets of Sinjar in northwestern Iraq recently.
Soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the 37th Armor Regiment, 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division patrol the streets of Sinjar in northwestern Iraq recently. (Monte Morin / S&S)
Soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the 37th Armor Regiment, 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division patrol the streets of Sinjar in northwestern Iraq recently.
Soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the 37th Armor Regiment, 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division patrol the streets of Sinjar in northwestern Iraq recently. (Monte Morin / S&S)
1st Lt. Einar Wulfsberg, 24, of Colorado Springs, interviews merchants along Sinjar’s bustling market street.
1st Lt. Einar Wulfsberg, 24, of Colorado Springs, interviews merchants along Sinjar’s bustling market street. (Monte Morin / S&S)
Capt. Aaron Dixon walks along Sinjar’s busy market street on a patrol.
Capt. Aaron Dixon walks along Sinjar’s busy market street on a patrol. (Monte Morin / S&S)

SINJAR, Iraq — For U.S. Army Capt. Aaron Dixon, patrolling the streets of this ancient town along the Asian silk route is as much about civics instruction as it is about soldiering.

Based in what has come to be one of Iraq’s more peaceful territories, the 30-year-old from Golden, Colo., often finds himself explaining to local leaders just what the U.S. Army can and can’t do for them.

Such was the case last week when more than 30 moqtars, or local village leaders, appealed to the officer to stop local sheep herders from allowing their flocks to graze on farmer’s wheat fields. Repeatedly, the moqtars insisted that since they were forbidden to carry AK-47 assault rifles in their fields, it was only the U.S. Army that could protect their crops from ravenous sheep.

Dixon explained to them that this wasn’t the U.S. Army’s job — it was their own government’s duty.

“There’s a difference between criminal activity and insurgent activity,” said Dixon, the commander of “Bulldog,” Company, 1st Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division.

“If there’s a concern about people who are participating in anti-government activities — something about [bombs] or weapons — then that’s my jurisdiction,” Dixon said. “But if the issue is about one farmer fighting another, one man being killed by another, or a robbery, that’s the Iraqi police’s jurisdiction.”

While U.S. Army units elsewhere in Iraq are still struggling to secure cities and towns from insurgent attacks, soldiers from the Friedberg, Germany-based 1-37 are focused on the transition from coalition occupation to local governance.

“You can see light at the end of the tunnel here,” said Lt. Col. V. J. Tedesco, battalion commander.

The transition is not an easy one. Many municipalities have grown accustomed to the direction and cash offered by coalition forces, and are reluctant to trust the newly established ministries to care for their district — a unique blend of Yezidi, Kurdish and Arab people in northern Iraq’s lush bread belt. The battalion’s area of operations is roughly the size of Connecticut.

“It’s more than tough love,” said Maj. Matthew Van Wagenen, the battalion’s executive officer. “A lot of it is not comfortable at times. How do you make a child swim when he doesn’t want to get in the pool alone?”

Sinjar is a very different place from most of Iraq. While not as secure or self sufficient as the northernmost Kurdish areas of the nation, insurgent attacks are rare here.

As a result, Sinjar is enjoying a commercial boom as residents from nearby Tal Afar and other areas hit by insurgent activity travel to Sinjar to do their shopping. The area also has seen a tremendous amount of construction, as new homes and retail buildings are being thrown up at a rapid pace.

The city and surrounding area, which has a population of roughly 65,000, is essentially where the rest of the country would like to be: reasonably secure and on the cusp of managing its own affairs.

“Because the security situation out here is pretty good, we’re able to focus on transition from military to civil stuff,” said Van Wagenen. “Hopefully the rest of Iraq will be like this soon.”

The trouble is, local officials are not eager to see America cut its apron strings and stop the flow of cash and projects.

Owing to the area’s strong Kurdish and Yezidi population — groups that were persecuted by Saddam Hussein — city officials are loathe to trust Iraq’s Baghdad-based government. They charge that government officials are more likely to skim cash and supplies than they are to send it along to the northwest.

“They talk about democracy, but that’s all they do, talk about it,” said Sinjar Mayor Dakhel Q. Hason. “The whole country has the same problem: Before we just had one thief; now we have a lot of them.”

Despite its comparative calm, the area is not immune to the effects of Iraq’s insurgency.

A lingering fuel shortage, caused by attacks on fuel shipments and the oil infrastructure, have given rise to a thriving black market in gasoline — a trade that U.S. military officials fear generates cash for the insurgency.

Residents also complain that insurgents from Tal Afar are attempting to move into the city and stage operations there. U.S. commanders worry, too, that insurgents would like to make a point and show residents that the city is not immune to their attacks.

And finally, the area’s complicated ethnic composition will remain a potential flashpoint for conflict. All three groups in the area — Kurds, Arabs and Yezidis — lay claim to the picturesque Sinjar Mountains, which dominate the area’s landscape.

At the moment, however, the area remains calm.

“It’s very enjoyable to see this,” said Battalion Command Sgt. Maj. Mark Schindler during a recent patrol along the city’s thriving market street. “We always talk about how this is what things should be like. I tell the soldiers that they need to enjoy this. These are the good memories.”

Battalion commanders say that they have the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment to thank for helping maintain peace in their area of operations. The 3rd ACR left the region more than three months ago.

They also have high praise for the training and instruction they received at Hohenfels prior to deploying from Germany.

Dixon said that initially he believed the training was impractical, because it focused on politicking more than it did on battling insurgents.

“Honestly, when we had our training we were all thinking, ‘this is really dumb,’” he said. “But then when we got here and went out on our first mission all these kids came up running and waving at us and we were like, ‘wait a minute — is this a test? This is exactly like the training.’ It turns out that what they were telling us was spot on.”

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