Targeted by violence, peace in sight
January 3, 2009
CAMP TAJI, Iraq — The Mushada council meeting opened with a few brief words for the dead.
A "sticky bomb" had exploded the previous week, killing a council member as he drove away from the last gathering.
"He was a good person," Ali Nusaif Alwad al Jenabi, the council chairman, said before moving on to other local government business during the meeting Wednesday.
Four days earlier, Jenabi had been the target of an unsuccessful assassination attempt.
But his council members were more eager to talk about upcoming provincial elections and security guards for the town’s newly opened schools.
Violence in Mushada and Tarmiyah along northwest Baghdad — greatly diminished over the past year — has recently turned from security forces toward individuals, largely targeting those still tangled in the al-Qaida networks that once terrorized the area, according to 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division.
The assassination of government officials remains rare, and no killings have been linked to the upcoming elections, battalion soldiers said.
But as Iraqis pick up the pace of reconstruction, the work remains tinged with violence and the sound of improvised explosive devices. On average, there is one bomb attack per day in Tarmiyah.
Jenabi, who is running in the provincial elections set for Jan. 31, said he does not fear the targeted killings.
"The last four years we have lived in danger," he said.
Fighting was intense when the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment — a Stryker battalion — moved into the area 13 months ago. But by early 2008, the local population was weary of the al-Qaida presence and a major offensive helped clear the group from the area, said Maj. Todd Woodruff, the battalion executive officer.
"It is hard to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t say they had a family member killed by al-Qaida," Woodruff said.
Today, the battalion has a variety of reconstruction success stories from Mushada and Tarmiyah.
The Mushada city market was once reduced to two vendors by the fighting. It is now used by about 200 — more than the 40 to 50 prior to the war, Woodruff said.
About 50 to 60 schools have been refurbished or rebuilt in the area around the two towns, he said.
Jenabi hosted a small ceremony at the opening of a primary school Dec. 29, and Tarmiyah is expected to finally open the Huda girls school on Monday. The school was scheduled to reopen in 2007 but soldiers discovered al-Qaida had bribed contractors to build explosives into the school’s foundation.
Political debates percolated for months and the first campaign posters were going up in Mushada at the end of December.
But, "we still see al-Qaida fighting for a toehold," Woodruff said.
The killings are now "very precise" and selectively target individuals who might have information on al-Qaida activities or networks, he said.
The Mushada councilman killed in the bombing had family closely linked with al-Qaida but it is difficult to determine the motive for the attack, said Capt. John Rhodes, commander of the battalion’s Company C.
Years of violence have woven complicated networks of distrust and resentment. Revenge is often a motive for attacks and cooperation alike, he said.
The previous day, an informant took Rhodes’ company and the Iraqi police to a cache of ammunition in a field outside Mushada.Al-Qaida fighters had killed the man’s family.
Concealed beneath a black balaclava, goggles and Army fatigues, he pointed out potential weapons stashes hidden by the insurgents during intense fighting.
At the Mushada council meeting, Rhodes listened closely and took notes while members discussed the need to educate the public on the elections and to hire security and janitors for schools.
As the meeting wrapped up, he gave the group of local leaders some advice.
"You all must be very vigilant. It is the terrorists and criminals in these areas who want to undo peace and governance," said Rhodes, 27, of Tucson, Ariz. "They will do everything in their power to stop the people in this room from becoming a legitimate local government."