Iraq’s dust can’t hide soldiers’ frustrations
Stars and Stripes June 14, 2007
HILLAH, Iraq — It was noon in Askary, a neighborhood in the Babil provincial capital that the U.S. Army has tagged “non-compliant,” and a small group of U.S. troops stood all alone.
The Iraqi army, the Iraqi police and the Babil SWAT unit had all evaporated in Sunday’s scorching sun. Even the scores of kids, who just minutes before had swarmed the American troops begging for treats, were gone.
But the small team’s feelings of vulnerability at being left alone in the dusty street paled in comparison to their frustration at being abandoned slowly throughout the morning by their Iraqi counterparts during a mission called Operation Babylon Sweep.
Instead of coaching the Iraqis on interviewing suspects and collecting illegal weapons, the U.S. team watched Iraqi police let residents walk unimpeded through a cordon, Iraqi soldiers quit their house searches after about two blocks, and an Iraqi company commander take a mid- morning tea break in the shade.
The worst part of the morning, in the American team’s minds, came just before noon, when the troops found themselves guiding a sewage truck through the narrow streets, looking for standing sewage in need of vacuuming.
“This is not our finest moment,” said Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Davis, 43, of Highlands, N.C. “This is not what we’re trained to do.”
Master Sgt. Walter Herrin, 37, of Baldwin County, Ala., put it another way. “I’ve got a new name for Operation Babylon Sweep,” he said. “Operation FEMA.”
Spending part of the morning tailing a sewage truck was an apt metaphor for the transition team, some of whom say their Iraqi troops are performing worse than when their unit arrived in late October. Moreover, the day’s breakdowns point to the growing weaknesses they see in training the Iraqi Army.
Operations like Babylon Sweep have too many components and too many goals, members of the team say. The Iraqi 2nd Brigade has nine companies, and none is on a regular training rotation. The Iraqi Army doesn’t want to escort a sewage truck any more than the American team does, they say.
“We need to go back to basics,” said Capt. Killaurin Roberts, 31, of Memphis, Tenn., the intelligence adviser for the transition team. “What do we want them to learn? They have to be able to do this — to train and adapt — so they will last five days after we leave this country.”
But the team’s commander, Lt. Col. Thomas Roth, says he doesn’t have the luxury of time to execute smaller operations and constantly work on basic training with an Iraqi brigade that already has gone through several U.S. training teams.
Plus, Roth, the commander for the Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team Airborne, 25th Infantry Division, said he thought Sunday’s operation was a success. It was the first time the team had added local government services, such as the sewage trucks, to the mix of looking for bad guys and moving through neighborhoods with humanitarian aid.
“There are things that we could do better,” said Roth, 43, of Eagle River, Alaska. But “it achieved the intent — to have the people see the Iraqi government and Iraqi army provide support to them. The main effort yesterday was really the civil affairs portion of the operation.”
That civil affairs portion included handing out medical supplies, toiletries and water to residents. Iraqi soldiers painted over Mahdi Army graffiti.
Capt. Tracy Trudell, 34, of Palmer, Alaska, did an interview with an Iraqi television reporter, complimenting the Iraqi government and security forces on working together to make the neighborhood better. “Look for me in a neighborhood near you,” he told the camera, a promise to keep the free goods and improvements flowing.
Later, Trudell was just as frustrated as his friends on the team.
“I want them to come up with the plan and then brief me,” said Trudell of the Iraqi commanders.
It often works the other way. The U.S. team sets many of the goals of the operation, then encourages the Iraqi forces to arrange their troops and set the timelines.
The team works behind the scenes in other ways. On Saturday, Sgt. 1st Class Hugh Clark, 39, of Liberty, Texas, paid $4,000 for toiletries and basic medical ointments. His counterpart, an Iraqi battalion-level medical officer, was in charge of buying the items and sorting them into care packages. Women walking away from medical stations on Sunday had one bag of baby shampoo, regular shampoo, cream, and other assorted tubes and boxes.
The Americans also paid $8,000 for the sewage trucks and trash collection. The Babil provincial government, along with the Iraqi army, was supposed to lead them through the streets. That never happened, and in the end, one sewage truck emptied out two houses and was full. The tanker must have come out loaded with waste, the American team guessed, making it a short workday.
The Iraqi police cordons looked perfect at dawn, just as the sweep began. But the officers never stopped pedestrians walking through the area. As soon as the Army pulled up, small flocks of pigeons flew through the air. No other birds were in the early- morning skies, and Roberts, the intelligence officer, saw it as a signal to the bad guys that security forces were around.
Roth, the team and battalion leader, said he wasn’t worried that there were no detainees or confiscated weapons at the end of the day.
“As ugly as it may have looked on the surface,” Roth said of Sunday’s operation, “this is like throwing a brick in the pond.”
The ripples of free medicine and kids with candy — along with improved relations among local leaders — will matter in the future, he said.