In search of a village not on the map

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 25, 2008

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BALBOOL, Iraq — The village name is unconfirmed. Its population and ethnic makeup are unknown. The mission: Find out who lives there and why.

But before the soldiers of Company A, Task Force 2-6 Infantry departed from Combat Outpost Carver on a reconnaissance patrol, leaders urged the men to be on guard for anything out of the ordinary.

"Coalition forces have never gone here before," Staff Sgt. Roger Markko told his team of soldiers. Reports about displaced families returning home have been pouring in from villages scattered along a vast rural stretch south of Salman Pak, where the infantrymen based in Baumholder, Germany, are now operating. In some cases, learning about the returnees means scouting a town that doesn’t even appear on a military map. In this instance, soldiers are heading to a place called Balbool.

A year ago, this region was a hotbed of sectarian conflict and al-Qaida-induced violence. However, during the last few months, improved security has started to lure people back to long-abandoned neighborhoods, commanders said.

Like so much of the Mada’in Qada region, an area southeast of Baghdad with a population of about 1.3 million, the emergence of local Iraqi security forces, coupled with an influx of coalition "surge" power, has transformed the security landscape here. The 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division assumed control of the region this month from the 3rd Heavy Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division — the only "surge" brigade to be replaced.

Unlike the areas in the northern part of the Iron Brigade’s district, which are predominantly Shiite, the area around Salman Pak is mostly Sunni. For the 2-6 soldiers who operate in the agrarian areas beyond Salman Pak’s city limits, knowing who the displaced people are is a key to maintaining the hard-won security gains of the past year.

Lt. Col. Michael Shrout, Task Force 2-6 commander, said it’s too early to guess how many displaced families have returned to his area of operation, which includes a swath of territory south of Salman Pak.

"We’re just now tackling it," he said. As people return, there is always the potential for conflict over land rights, which could escalate into sectarian tension, Shrout noted. By engaging with the local population, soldiers hope to cut off such a situation before it starts.

Stemming village infighting will make the communities less vulnerable to outside influences, such as al-Qaida in Iraq elements that sparked many of the area’s troubles a few years ago, he said.

In an effort to get a handle on the scope of the situation, Company A soldiers are knocking on doors and meeting with local leaders in far-flung places to get information.

On Thursday, Company A’s 2nd Platoon ventured to such a place to take a head count of displaced people in the village of Balbool. A day earlier, soldiers didn’t even know the name of the village and had to seek out a sheik in a neighboring town for information.

Humvees, making their first trip to the area, curled along narrow dirt roads more accustomed to donkey traffic then hefty up-armored machines. Upon the soldiers’ arrival, the village leaders of Balbool quickly crowded around. The greeting was friendly, and the villagers didn’t have any problem talking about their needs. Clean drinking water is in short supply. They wanted to know: Could the Americans provide a water pump? The platoon leader quickly learned that about 40 families have returned to Balbool in the past couple of months. The village sheik says the population, which dropped to none after al-Qaida zeroed in on the town, now stands at 317.

Up until five months ago, terrorists still held ground in Balbool, according to the villagers. Whether it was pressure from coalition forces in the area, or something else, they’re no longer in Balbool. Company A soldiers have heard the same story in other nearby towns.

"As it continues to get more secure, more people will be coming back," said 1st Lt. Brendan Collins, who led his platoon’s search for displaced families in several villages. For some soldiers, the patrols through remote villages is a world away from the Iraq they witnessed on previous tours, which were typically fraught with violence. While the platoon is in only its second month in Iraq, the soldiers have yet to engage in a firefight or feel the blast of a roadside bomb. Instead, the focus has been on improving essential services, such as water flow, and maintaining security.

Staff Sgt. Stephen Saunders, who is on his third tour, said he’s just fine with the peacefulness he’s witnessed so far. The focus on providing help instead of fighting is a refreshing change, he said.

"If we’re going to win we need to engage with the people and see what they need," Saunders said.

See more photos here.

A turret gunner assigned to Company A, Task Force 2-6 Infantry, peers through the shade while pulling security for a meeting Thursday in the remote town of Baki, Iraq.

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