In Arab Jabour, troops step aside, serve as ‘enablers’ for the Iraqis
PATROL BASE DOLBY, Iraq — Gone are the days of grunts kicking in doors and conducting kinetic operations.
Because of the current noncombat nature of the war in this part of Iraq, U.S. Army officers and senior noncommissioned officers now sip sugary tea with sheiks and strengthen relationships with Iraqi army leaders during frequent visits in this rural area southeast of Baghdad.
"Does it take away from the glory of combat? No," said Sgt. 1st Class Jesus Pena, just before meeting with an Iraqi Army lieutenant colonel.
"It’s just a different complexity now."
In many parts of Iraq, U.S. troops are already playing the role envisioned in the withdrawal plan President Barack Obama announced Friday. Under that plan, the "combat" mission will end by Aug. 31, 2010. But up to 50,000 troops will remain through the end of 2011 as "enablers" — providing training, air support and back-up for Iraqi security forces.
Just two years ago, this predominately Sunni area near Arab Jabour was a hotbed of insurgent activity. Makeshift bombs lined roads and surrounding fields. Things were bad, but things have changed. A single Army company now operates in the area formerly manned by an entire Army brigade.
Earlier in the war, that would have been an indication that more troops were needed. Now, it is taken as the opposite.
Last week, platoon leaders talked with sheiks about a wide variety of "nation building" topics, including asking about the return on investment locals can expect from upstart chicken and fish farms.
"The key terrain in Iraq now is the people," said Capt. Allan Carroll, commander of Company B, 1st Battalion, 35th Armored Regiment, based in Baumholder, Germany. "The most key portion of that is the leadership and the Iraqi army."
Soldiers heard gripes from Iraqi army officers that "Sons of Iraq" members don’t salute them; that it’s easier and faster for Iraqi army units to get their vehicles fixed at local markets instead of going through their chain of command for maintenance requests; and that "Sons of Iraq" members are not being picked up to serve in the Iraqi army or police and so on.
U.S. soldiers said they’d help where they could. But in most cases, they explained that the Iraqis must now work with each other and the Iraqi government to resolve most of their issues. With U.S. combat forces set to leave, the time for the Iraqis to work out such differences on their own is at hand.
During the meetings, security in the area was always discussed, but the sheiks and Iraqi army officers repeated that things were good.
On Wednesday, Lt. Col. Michael Mammay, commander of 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment, and his officers enjoyed a lunch of lamb, rice and bread at a feast hosted by a sheik and "Sons of Iraq" leader.
After lunch, the Iraqis and Americans discussed issues such as medical care, road paving, electricity and water pumps. They cracked jokes back and forth — through interpreters, laughing comfortably with each other. The Iraqis talked about putting up a statue for the Americans as a thanks for their efforts in turning things around. Pointing to his chest, an Iraqi said the Americans will always have a place, a statue in his heart.
Overall, the war is being won, Carroll said. The Iraqi army can be trusted, and it can stand on its own, he said. Carroll has a bright outlook on the future of his area.
"Right now, I don’t see a huge threat, especially with coalition forces here," Carroll said. "If [insurgents] are re-seeding and are preparing for our eventual departure, we need to make sure that we use human intelligence with the Iraqi army to identify where [the insurgents] are, and then help the Iraqi army get them out."
And as evidenced by an exchange between an Iraqi sheik and a U.S. officer, Iraqis are aware that U.S. forces will not be around forever and they will have to make their own future.
"Don’t give us fresh fish to eat," said Sheik Arkan, a "Sons of Iraq" leader in the area. "Give us a net."
"We have that saying too," said 2nd Lt. Bret Woellner.