Final stages of war are more political, less physical
NA’UR, IRAQ — The patrol started as a hastily put together search for an al-Qaida member in this collection of mud-straw huts in Diyala province. Fired-up U.S. soldiers with rifles at the ready were looking forward to a rare opportunity to nab a bad guy.
It ended with an offer of chickens for an impoverished farmer.
Instead of the insurgents an Iraqi army captain insisted were there, the soldiers ran into Muhammad Wahaib Shebah, an aging farmer with gnarled hands who launched into the story of how his three sons were killed. The Iraqi captain suggested the man was just looking for money, but his grief looked all too real as he shook with sobs, slumping against a mud wall of his house.
“His father was killed, and why?” he said, pointing at one of his young grandchildren.
The soldiers of 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division offered Shebah help getting a microgrant to buy chickens for his withering farm, and left town shaking their heads.
“It’s hard to know who to trust,” said Sgt. Israel O’Bryan.
Soldiers in Iraq now likely represent the last U.S. combat units who will serve in the country and they find themselves in the often frustrating position of negotiating the dizzying world of local politics first, and fighting the insurgency a distant second.
“The mission and the problems we face in Iraq today, while not as deadly as two years ago, are much more complex,” said Col. David Funk, who commands U.S. soldiers in Diyala province.
Today’s battlefield is a lavish spread at Sheik Tami Abbas’ spotless rural compound in southern Diyala to celebrate the Eid ul-Fitr feast after the fasting month of Ramadan. The war takes place over cardamom-spiced coffee, soldiers eating with their hands over a heaping plate of rice, lamb, and flatbread, their helmets and body armor stacked in the corner.
For Capt. Peter Casterline, who spent much of the meeting listening to Abbas’ request for grant money, it’s a difficult balance.
“When you go to a meeting, you have to be thinking both ways because you have to get information on the criminals and you also have to know what projects are going on,” he said. “That’s the hardest part, sorting out all the people.”
Under the terms of the U.S.-Iraqi security pact, America is to pull all of its combat troops from Iraq by August 2010, leaving in place a residual force of advisory and assistance brigades to train and support Iraqi security forces, but not engage in combat operations. The mission, however, has shifted well ahead of that time line, leaving soldiers such as Casterline to balance maintaining security with mediating political disputes and handing out grants for projects ranging from providing clean drinking water to purchasing livestock.
It’s especially true in regions like mostly rural Diyala province, where tribal politics pervade daily life and unelected local leaders wield tremendous power, settling everything from water disputes to blood feuds.
“Tribal sheiks wield a lot more influence in Diyala than Baghdad — they truly are the voice of the people,” Funk said.
Few Iraqis ask Americans for help with security anymore — their demands are for clean water, improved power generation, and money. It’s a difficult task for soldiers ready to fight.
After spending a day talking water projects and handing out small loans in the mayor’s office of a small southern Diyala province town, Capt. Andrew Benson admits it’s a different kind of mission than he imagined coming to Iraq.
“It’s not what we trained for,” said Benson, with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment.