For Chiarelli, Iraq mission is more than military
March 13, 2006
Editor’s note: On Jan. 19, Lt. Gen. Pete Chiarelli returned to Iraq for a second tour and assumed command of day-to-day operations throughout the country. Last week, Stars and Stripes spent the day with Chiarelli on a mission to Diyala.
BAGHDAD — “Let’s go open. It’s a beautiful day,” Lt. Gen. Pete Chiarelli said into his headset, as he and his retinue strapped themselves into their Black Hawk.
The helicopter lifted from behind the palace at Camp Victory into the blue skies above Baghdad, and Chiarelli, commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, looked through the open doors at what is, to some degree, his domain.
It was not, however, a beautiful thing. Chiarelli pointed out garbage-strewn streets as far as the eye could see.
“If you brought the EPA over here, they would have a heart attack,” he said.
It wasn’t just the aesthetics. People who live amid garbage, Chiarelli reasons — people with sewage in their yards, people without jobs — are people without hope and more likely to join the insurgency.
And, practically speaking, garbage obscures roadside bombs.
“It becomes a force-protection issue,” Chiarelli said. “I tie just about everything I’m talking about to force protection and mission accomplishment.”
His mission last Sunday was to fly to Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province, a mixed Sunni-Shiite area with a sizable Kurdish population — and the site of a number of recent, disturbing incidents.
At least 73 people were killed near Baqouba between Feb. 21 — a day before the Samarra Golden Mosque bombing that made civil war seem imminent — and Feb. 26. Among the dead were two judges’ bodyguards, entire Shiite families, Iraqi troops and police, and 47 men thought to be Sunnis, pulled off a bus and executed. The day before his visit, a car bomb killed a girl and injured nine people; the day after, a car bomb killed six and injured 23.
Chiarelli was to hear a briefing from the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, see how their counterinsurgency work was going, tour public works projects, and meet with provincial officials and an Iraqi army general.
A Seattle butcher’s son, Chiarelli, 55, holds two advanced degrees — in international relations and economics, and in national security and strategic studies. He’s a believer in “full spectrum operations” that emphasize winning Iraqi favor and wooing them away from insurgency by providing services and “an empathetic understanding of the impact of Western actions on a Middle East society.”
In a paper he wrote after his first tour in Iraq as commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, where his troops worked on projects just blocks away from battles with a Shiite militia, he said it was clear he could win battles with military force. But, he wrote, it was also clear that winning the campaign was only possible “if the local populace revealed insurgent and terrorist cells and, accordingly, denied sanctuary.”
Or as he put it last week: “You can’t just go out there with a fly swatter and swat it all away.”
“It’s all part of a complicated relationship. When you work infrastructure, governance, when you work the economy to put people to work … all those things coming together cause things to improve,” he said. “It can happen. It can work.”
Chiarelli is a serious man, who, his aides say, handwrites each condolence letter he sends to the families of soldiers killed in action. But he’s also witty and easily makes his soldiers laugh.
The trip was one of several Chiarelli takes biweekly, breaking away from endless briefings and meetings for a “firsthand look” to see what resources his troops and Iraqi partners need.
“When you get out, you can help people work their way through tough issues,” he said.
Around noon, Col. B.J. Jones, commander of the 3rd HBCT, 4th Infantry Division, at Forward Operation Base Ironhorse, began an elaborate Power Point presentation. There were charts and graphs and maps, and slides on everything from bird flu to an Iraqi news conference held after the Golden Mosque bombing.
There were lists of tribal leaders, assessments of everything from police capacity to basic services. There were discussions on unemployment — a big factor in insurgency. At one point, the colonel vowed that this year the date palms would be sprayed.
“If we get a good date harvest, we can employ a lot of people,” Jones said. “That would help us tremendously.”
As maps of the many insurgent groups and where they were active were displayed, Chiarelli asked, “Who creates the biggest problem?”
It wasn’t Sunni nationalists or al-Qaida in Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr, Jones replied, the politically powerful fundamentalist Shiite cleric with his own militia and a hatred of the occupation.
Asked about their frustrations, Jones’ officers talked about corruption and the reluctance of Iraqi officials to use their authority. They cited their own inexperience in public works projects and the confusing array of paperwork needed to get money from a confusing variety of sources.
“I can get a [$500,000 engine] for a tank, no problem,” Jones said. “But if I want to start an irrigation project, I’ve got to be approved by 16 people above me, and I don’t understand it.”
Chiarelli told them he was impressed.
“You’re doing it exactly the way I believe it needs to be done. I hope it’s not just paper,” he said. “I hope you believe in it.”
Chiarelli and the 3rd HBCT officers visited a water treatment project. As the convoy rumbled through the squalid area, adults looked on impassively. Children waved excitedly and held their thumbs up. Col. Ken Cox, Chiarelli’s reconstruction officer, waved back enthusiastically.
“If we were truly evil, the kids wouldn’t run out to see us,” Cox said. “I’ve got to believe that — the children, at least [like Americans]. I think progress is glacial. If we can win one Iraqi every single day, if I can win one, if he can win one … eventually, it’s going to take hold.”
The project looked like a squat, white trailer, and under Chiarelli’s questioning it was revealed that, in essence, that was all it was.
There was no one trained to operate it, no distribution system to send the water into people’s homes. So what’s the point? Chiarelli asked.
“Roger, sir,” said Maj. Bret Martin, from the Army Corps of Engineers. “Sir, in many respects it doesn’t go the final mile.”
“I can help you fix stuff like this if I know about it,” Chiarelli said.
Ra’as al Tamimi, governor of Diyala province, wore a suit and an air of fatigue and anxiety. In a large office, al Tamimi told the general that his province had calm spots, hot spots and “boiling areas.”
Although there were assassinations, abductions, murders and attacks on checkpoints, Iraqi forces were becoming more capable, he said. The provincial judicial chief said most judges had come under threats. They needed more bodyguards, and more money to support the families of assassinated judges and ministers.
The Iraqi government had promised the province $100 million for reconstruction, he said, but “not one penny has been allocated to Diyala.”
The governor added sadly that neighboring countries were working to make Iraq “a failure.”
“I believe that’s impossible, because of the Iraqi people,” Chiarelli told him. “It took Germany eight years after its war to have a constitution. It took Japan 10 years. It took my own country 13 years. It took Iraq two years.”
The governor, buoyed at last, smiled for perhaps the first time and clasped Chiarelli’s hand. “Yet again, we ask for your support,” he said.
The Iraqi army’s 5th Division commander got right to the point, despite his manner of extreme politeness. The general, whose name isn’t being published to protect his family, said he needed ammunition and mortars to fire back at insurgents.
The general told Chiarelli that after the Golden Mosque was bombed, one of his worst problems was other Iraqi troops — the Public Order Battalions from the Ministry of the Interior.
“We’re paying a heavy price for their conduct, and we know that people do not differentiate,” he said.
“You question the professionalism of the public order battalions?” Chiarelli said.
“I’m a Shiite, but I conduct my business according to the oath I’ve taken as a professional,” the general replied. “When the Ministry of Interior (forces) comes, the people say, ‘The Shiites have come to kill the citizens.’”
But Chiarelli decided to focus on the positive — struck, he said later, by how the general’s words illustrated progress in the Iraqi army, if not the police.
“As brave as you are, as hard as you fight,” Chiarelli told him, “those are easy things to learn compared to your professionalism as an army leader. That’s what you should be most proud of.”
It had long since turned dark by the time Chiarelli boarded the Black Hawk for the return trip to the palace. When he arrived, he was handed the latest report — another car bomb, more dead and wounded. He shook his head.
“Those bastards,” he said.
The key: Bring hope to the Iraqis
The first thing a public works project in Iraq should do is actually work, Lt. Gen. Pete Chiarelli told the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team command last week. Water treatment plants without distribution systems, electrical substations without feeder lines and other projects no one knows how to operate are useless to the Iraqi people and consequently do nothing to ease attacks on troops, he said.
“I’m into trying to complete systems,” Chiarelli said. “That’s low-hanging fruit. I’ll find the money if you can show me a project like that, where only some pieces need to be connected.”
Chiarelli, a believer in diminishing the insurgency by wooing the public, said there were many projects that had been completed but left either unconnected or without locals who knew how to use them.
Second, he said, put the projects where they’ll do the most good — and good is measured in fewer attacks against U.S. troops.
“To me, you have to use it as a weapon where people are fighting,” Chiarelli said. “I never worried about the nice areas of Baghdad when I was there. If the power went down, they just went into the garage and [turned on the generator].
“I was always looking to spend my money where there were the most problems,” he said. “You guys ought to be ruthless in using those projects where you’re going to get the most bang for the buck.”
Third, Chiarelli said, don’t set your standards too high. This is not Dubuque, Iowa. Iraqi sewage systems, for instance, are nonexistent in most places and flow into streams and rivers in the best of circumstances.
“No one was shooting at me because the Tigris was polluted,” Chiarelli said. “They were all shooting at me because their front yards were filled with sewage.
“Spend the money in the place you’re having problems,” Chiarelli said. “Will it get to be a paradise where you want to retire? No, but I believe it will improve. The key is to bring hope to the Iraqi people.”
— Nancy Montgomery