Salman Pak showing signs of improvement

1st Lt. Thomas Schlichter and Spc. Allen Lee, both soldiers from Company C, Task Force 2-6 Infantry, patrol down Salman Pak’s market street Friday.


By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 29, 2008

SALMAN PAK, Iraq — The judges are back, and if the soldiers of Task Force 2-6 Infantry have their way, the courthouse will be busy.

After an absence of nearly three years, Salman Pak’s three judges have returned to the bench at the city courthouse, where security conditions have improved enough that the justices have opted to come out of a self-imposed exile. The judges, one of whom was shot in the face during the tumultuous days when al-Qaida ran the streets, returned to town just three weeks ago.

"It was something that was 2½ years in the making," said Lt. Col. Michael Shrout, Task Force 2-6 commander.

Now, the objective is to establish a stronger rule of law in areas where tribal clashes and spats of vigilantism still flare and, consequently, threaten the security achievements of the past year, Shrout said.

There also are some concerns that certain members of the local "Sons of Iraq" are operating beyond their authority in a portion of 2-6’s territory south of the city limits of Salman Pak, which is southeast of Baghdad. The "Sons of Iraq" are armed civilian groups across the country funded by American forces.

While relative peace has replaced the daily dangers of a year ago, which took the form of firefights, sniper assaults and roadside bombs, challenges persist for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division forces in the area.

Families who were displaced by the violence have started to return to numerous villages spread around the southern section of the Mada’in Qada. And in some cases, there are people who are returning with old scores to settle, Shrout said.

On Sunday, that was the case when three Iraqis were wounded during a shootout in the small villages of Al Kesra and Hilaliyah. The goal is to get these tribal disputes handled by legitimate Iraqi law enforcement agencies and move beyond vigilantism, Shrout said.

"While I’m encouraged we are sitting here talking, I’m discouraged that the bleeding young men from your villages are brought to my gates for care," Shrout told area tribal leaders during a security meeting Monday in Salman Pak.

Initially, leaders of Task Force 2-6 assembled in the city hall for the meeting, which was intended to focus on government issues and services. But with the shootings from the previous night, the agenda changed.

The meeting was moved to an Iraq army headquarters down the road, where the discussion centered on security concerns. While tribal leaders squabbled back and forth during the meeting, Shrout issued a warning.

"I’ve seen false warrants distributed by people sitting in this room today," Shrout said. "If the ‘Sons of Iraq’ are acting outside the law then they’ll be treated like they’re acting outside the law. I cannot emphasize enough — the ‘Sons of Iraq’ are not a tribal militia."

The leaders sat expressionless following the scolding from coalition and Iraqi army leaders.

With the judges back in business, warrants must be issued and executed by the proper agencies, Shrout said.

Nonetheless, the recent tribal skirmish is a far cry from the type of conflict that abounded throughout Salman Pak and the villages beyond its city limits not so long ago. Now, streets vacated during the unrest bustle with people and commerce. Capt. William Richardson, commander of 2-6’s Company C, said the next step in Salman Pak is to get the local security forces to handle more of the day-to-day security patrols.

In the next couple weeks, Richardson’s soldiers will be conducting joint patrols through town in an effort to show the Iraqis how the job is done.

Eventually, coalition forces should be able to recede further into the background here.

"They are getting close to that point," Richardson said. "It’s encouraging to see the progress that’s been made."

Out in the country, where tribal disputes are more commonplace, soldiers have been patrolling the area to get a grip on challenges posed by the influx of displaced families.

During his meeting with tribal leaders, Shrout told the men gathered around the table that much has been achieved. However, more lawlessness in the villages could translate into more assertive actions by coalition forces.

"We’ve shown great restraint," Shrout said. "Don’t tempt that patience."

Pfc. Richard Moffitt, a soldier from Company C, Task Force 2-6 Infantry, pulls security during a patrol Friday in Salman Pak’s market street, near concrete barriers adorned with murals.