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Khalid Khodir Salih, an engineer at the Khark Water Treatment Plant, shows how the plant functions. Salih said he has noticed an increase in attacks since Americans began guarding the facility. U.S. troops blame the attacks on in-fighting between the predominantly Sunni police security force and the mainly Shiite Iraqi soldiers also guarding the plant.
Khalid Khodir Salih, an engineer at the Khark Water Treatment Plant, shows how the plant functions. Salih said he has noticed an increase in attacks since Americans began guarding the facility. U.S. troops blame the attacks on in-fighting between the predominantly Sunni police security force and the mainly Shiite Iraqi soldiers also guarding the plant. (Anita Powell / S&S)
Khalid Khodir Salih, an engineer at the Khark Water Treatment Plant, shows how the plant functions. Salih said he has noticed an increase in attacks since Americans began guarding the facility. U.S. troops blame the attacks on in-fighting between the predominantly Sunni police security force and the mainly Shiite Iraqi soldiers also guarding the plant.
Khalid Khodir Salih, an engineer at the Khark Water Treatment Plant, shows how the plant functions. Salih said he has noticed an increase in attacks since Americans began guarding the facility. U.S. troops blame the attacks on in-fighting between the predominantly Sunni police security force and the mainly Shiite Iraqi soldiers also guarding the plant. (Anita Powell / S&S)
Tanks at the Khark Water Treatment Plant, Baghdad’s primary water source. The plant supplies more than 70 percent of Baghdad residents with water.
Tanks at the Khark Water Treatment Plant, Baghdad’s primary water source. The plant supplies more than 70 percent of Baghdad residents with water. (Anita Powell / S&S)

KHARK WATER TREATMENT PLANT, Iraq — The desolate Khark Water Treatment Plant, located in a dusty corner of northern Baghdad Province, is not an obvious front in this nation’s war on terror.

Yet the plant, which pumps the nation’s most vital resource to more than 70 percent of Baghdad’s residents, is a microcosm of the enduring struggle Americans and Iraqis face in bringing stability to this country.

The facility — under the constant specter of attack from outside insurgents — is secured by three separate security details: one predominantly Sunni, one predominantly Shiite and, between them, U.S. forces.

The two Iraqi groups distrust, dislike and often try to kill each other, often incorporating outside insurgent groups to do so. American forces — Company C of 1st Battalion, 13th Armor Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, of Fort Riley, Kan. — are stuck in the middle. The soldiers are trying to deflect the groups’ attacks against each other while also staving off attacks from outside fighters.

In July, insurgents attacked the plant’s power distribution control center. Insurgents also have attacked two water distribution points that relay the water to Baghdad. Mortars and small-arms fire are common.

“For centuries, there has been an unwritten rule in this region that you don’t attack water,” said battalion commander Lt. Col. Eric Wesley. “And what are they attacking? The water supply. That just indicates the level of depravity we’re working with.”

If the plant were incapacitated, officials say, chaos would ensue in Baghdad.

“If you’re at home and your power goes out and your water goes out, who are you going to blame? Anybody,” said Lt. James Rippee, Company C fire support officer.

The company guards the plant around the clock.

“We put a lot of money and resources into this,” Rippee said. “Ultimately, the goal here is to get them self-sufficient where the Iraqis can self-police this place.”

The Khark Water Treatment Plant was built in 1985, during the height of the Iran-Iraq war. In the last 13 years, says plant supervisor Ahmed Abd Homaadi, the facility functioned largely without incident. The plant pumps about 300 million gallons of water a day from the Tigris River to Baghdad, said engineer Khalid Khodir Salih.

Homaadi and Salih attributed the plant’s current security problems to the American presence.

Battalion officials dispute the accusation, saying that the plant’s problems also are caused by growing unrest between its two sets of guards: the Sunni-dominated Force Protection Service, a civilian group; and the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army. Both groups have been known to harbor insurgents or collaborators, Rippee said.

The plant’s civilian guard corps, hired by the Mayorality of Baghdad, are also quick to assign blame.

“When the Americans came here, the terrorists came here too,” said guard Mustafa Esmaeel Abdulla, 22, who said he has worked at the plant for six years.

Nor, guards said, do they feel safe with the area’s 100-plus Iraqi army security force.

“I don’t trust them,” said guard Mohammed Ahmed Mahmood.

The Iraqi army, for its part, says it has trouble holding down such an important target in such a hostile area.

“The civilians that live around here, they don’t like the [Iraqi] army,” said Col. Raad Rasam Ali, a Shiite resident of Baghdad. “They like Saddam Hussein. We can’t trust the FPS. No one can trust the FPS. I can’t trust anyone. No one can defend the country except the Iraqi army.”

American advisers say they doubt that assessment.

“I don’t completely trust the Iraqi army,” said 1st Sgt. Mike Summers. “I don’t trust them to protect me. They have a lack of discipline.”

American soldiers at the water plant — many of whom live in its aging, dilapidated confines — say the fight to keep the peace is a constant one.

“There might be a few days when it’s quiet, but it’s very rare,” said Sgt. Charles Richardson, 22, a native of Front Royal, Va., and a member of Platoon B, 4th Battalion, 1st Field Artillery, which is attached to Company C. “We could use more people. It’s stressful out here.”

Of four Platoon B soldiers interviewed, all had earned Combat Action Badges, though one soldier had only been stationed at the plant for three months.

Some soldiers said they wanted to persist.

“That would be the worst-case scenario: us coming here, turning this place upside down, and leaving without accomplishing anything,” said Pvt. Lawrence Jatker, 27, of Paterson, N.J. “I support what we’re doing here and I’d come back for it.”

The enormity and difficulty of the task is perhaps the only point on which all three groups at the water treatment plant can agree.

“Everyone now tries to be in charge,” said Ali, the Iraqi army colonel. “It’s difficult to control.”

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