Mending holes to win trust
BAGHDAD -- The fighting may be over along Baghdad’s notorious Haifa Street, but the grousing has just begun.
At least that’s how it looked for Capt. Christopher Dawson on Thursday as the cavalry troop commander reconnoitered a section of the bullet-pocked boulevard for an upcoming civil affairs mission.
The 37-year-old Lima, Ohio, native had just stepped from his Humvee when local Iraqis clustered around him and, through an interpreter, unloaded on him with a list of complaints and requests.
“You need to pick up this trash,” one man told Dawson through an interpreter.
“I need money,” said an elderly woman.
“The soldiers at the checkpoint here are trouble,” said a third resident. “They are out here taking pills, smoking hash and drinking. They fire off their guns at night for no reason.”
Roughly two months after U.S. and Iraqi forces began implementing Baghdad’s new security plan, violence along this deadly boulevard has plummeted.
The calm follows a period of heavy fighting between insurgents and U.S. and Iraqi forces — fighting that saw heavy use of helicopter gunships and left entire blocks scarred by bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.
In the wake of this violence, coalition forces are scrambling to make numerous improvements to the area’s infrastructure in hopes of winning the hearts and minds of its predominantly Sunni Muslim population.
On Sunday, U.S. and Iraqi troops will open a newly refurbished school here and Dawson’s unit hopes to operate a temporary medical clinic in the near future. Sewer upgrades are being implemented across the district.
Dawson, who commands Troop B of the 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, said if all goes well, the residents will not accept insurgents back into their neighborhood.
“There are two types of terrain here — urban and human,” Dawson said. “We’re starting to own the human terrain. If the enemy comes back, he’ll think he owns the urban terrain, but the next thing he knows people will be calling us in the middle of the night to give us information.”
On this particular day, however, the human terrain was looking a little rough.
A large pile of smoldering garbage sat beneath a cloud of flies some 50 yards away and residents complained that their local neighborhood council was ignoring their pleas to remove it. When they asked Dawson to remove it, he told them that it was their local government’s responsibility.
When an elderly woman asked for money because the men in her family had been killed by Shiite militiamen, leaving her and other survivors without an income, Dawson said he couldn’t help. “We can only pay reparations if we were responsible,” Dawson said.
But when a man accused local Iraqi army soldiers of boozing it up and acting boorish at a nearby checkpoint, Dawson said he’d talk to the unit’s commander.
“They’re not as disciplined as our army,” Dawson said.
After the man had left, the troop commander said it was more likely that such behavior occurred some time ago. He said the command of Iraqi army units in the area was much improved, and that local residents were more likely wary of the unit’s ethnic composition. The soldiers are mostly Shiite.
“There’s an image problem here,” Dawson said. “Everyone thinks they’re getting liquored up, but it’s because they’re Shias and they don’t trust them. We’re working on improving their image. We’re telling people, hey, look — things are tough all around. Nobody’s here living in a gold palace with rivers of chocolate out front.”