Fighting insurgency, brick by brick
Stars and Stripes May 5, 2008
NARHWAN, Iraq — Before Lt. Col. Mark Sullivan arrived in this city of 120,000, he had his eye on the map.
On the outskirts of Narhwan a big smoke-belching brick factory, once the economic engine of the region, was sitting idle. Before the start of the war, it employed more than 10,000. In the years that followed, though, it degenerated into a den of extortion. The extremists were shaking down the business owners.
“It was a sanctuary. Weapons and ammunition were stored out there,” Sullivan said.
But Sullivan, commander of the 1st Battalion, 10th Field Artillery Regiment, sensed an opportunity at the onetime employment hub turned weapons storage center.
“We saw it on the map and said we’re going to go after this sucker,” Sullivan said.
Seven months later, the mules are in motion. Conveyors are spitting out the bricks, which are being stacked up by the million. While the violence rages to the west in Sadr City, tensions have eased in Shiite-dominated Narhwan.
The reason is simple: People are too busy going to work every day, he said. “You have to provide an alternative to criminal behavior.”
The factory is once again the largest employer in Mada’in, an area southeast of Baghdad where the 3rd Heavy Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division has been operating since March of 2007.
In October, there were 2,500 workers at the factory. Now there are 15,000.
The facility — comprised of 167 mini-factories and numerous owners — has the potential to employ up to 25,000, Sullivan said.
Within two weeks a new unit will be coming in to take over Narhwan and work with the factory managers to keep the production going. The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division will assume control of Mada’in Qada, which includes the city of Narhwan.
While Sullivan has spearheaded a variety of coalition-funded public works initiatives during his deployment in Narhwan, the brick factory hasn’t been about investing money, he said.
“The good news with this particular project is that it has cost no money to the American taxpayer,” Sullivan said.
Instead, the focus has been on bringing together business and government leaders to get the plant the fuel it needs to operate.
Lt. Col. Michael Mammay, commander of the 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment, said he’s looking to push public works projects forward in town.
“Our goal is to convince everyone in town it’s not a new sheriff in town. It’s the same old sheriff in town,” Mammay said.
However, the help with the factory and other projects in the city comes with a condition: “One attack against my soldiers and all this stuff stops,” Sullivan said.
With the extremists cleared out, the long-term success at the plant depends on the steady delivery of heavy fuel oil used to power the brick ovens.
Back in January, the factory owners and Iraq government officials reached an agreement for fuel delivery that triggered a production boost. The factories increased operations from five days a month to 30.
“Within three weeks 12,000 workers were brought back here,” Sullivan said. “Word travels fast.”
In March, however, the flow was disrupted when fighting erupted in Basra, the site of a key refinery facility. That started the search for an alternative.
“You just have to keep looking,” said Sullivan.
Last week, a new supplier was tracked down. On Saturday, the deal was to be ratified by the owners. Though it was just a routine matter — the terms of the contract had been settled — the owners’ group insisted that Sullivan attend.
“We want you there,” said owner Abu Ziad, during a meeting Wednesday with Sullivan.
“Will I get a cold Pepsi?” Sullivan countered.
After the quick chat, the battalion commander boiled his experience in Narhwan down to this: “You win a counter-insurgency with the tip of your tongue, not the tip of your rifle.”