Unit finds peace by immersing itself daily in Iraqi village
May 6, 2008
TESAH NISSAN, Iraq — Capt. Chas Cannon has been the guest at village weddings. He’s cut the throat of the ceremonial lamb, shoveled his right hand into mounds of rice and gorged on meats of uncertain origin.
During his regular visits to the villages of Tesah Nissan, Cannon also makes a point to compliment the cooks in Arabic after eating. When he mingles in the crowd, he seems to know everyone by name.
“You’ve got to get out of your vehicle. Face-to-face interaction is everything,” said Cannon, who is wrapping up his third deployment to Iraq with the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division out of Fort Benning, Ga.
Since his battery of soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 10th Field Artillery Regiment took over the area in December, the unit has immersed itself in the daily lives of villagers, who live about 20 miles east of the Green Zone. The result: a cascade of tips leading to the seizure of weapons caches. In five months not a single roadside bomb has exploded in Tesah Nissan, which sits along a thoroughfare leading straight to Baghdad.
“Before, our security was real bad,” said Quissin Yassim, the leader of the local and newly formed “Sons of Iraq” group. “Before, IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were in streets, and they (the extremists) were taking money by force. They were taking people’s cars.”
Similar scenes have played out in other parts of the Hammer Brigade’s operational footprint southeast of Baghdad. During the early part of the unit’s deployment, the environment was marked by firefights and bomb detonations. As part of the “surge” force, the unit took control of an area that had been mostly uncovered during all of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
But after the initial fighting in the Rhode Island-sized Mada’in Qada, much of battlefield has been transformed. Facilitating meetings, providing services and doling out money for infrastructure projects has been the business at hand.
“I’m sort of like a campaign adviser trying to help them get things running,” said Cannon, who will complete his third tour in Iraq this month.
The Baumholder-based 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment will soon assume responsibility of the area.
In Tesah Nissan, the payoff for cultivating relationships and building up local Iraqi security came after tensions boiled over in other Shiite-dominated areas back in March.
“Last month security was not good in Basra and Sadr City. Militias are fighting. Thank God we were able to keep peace in our territory,” said Yassim, during a tribal council meeting with 1-10 leaders and members of the Baumholder unit.
Commanders credit the emergence of the local “Sons of Iraq,” a local U.S.-paid civilian armed group, which has swelled to more than 200 members. When Cannon’s unit arrived, there was no organized security force.
With the added security, the focus now has turned to improving services and infrastructure.
Hussein Abbas, a provincial leader in the region who functions as a liaison between Tesah Nissan and the government in Baghdad, says the reason the villagers turned from violence is simple. They’re asking themselves which side can do more to put food on the table, he said.
“People now feel good relations with them (coalition forces) are better than good relations with the extremists,” Abbas said.
Now, the leading sheiks routinely hold meetings on how to improve the living conditions of its residents, Cannon said. A vote determines how to spend the project funds Cannon hands out, which puts responsibility on the villagers.
“If something doesn’t work out, they can’t come back at us. They made the decision,” he said.
Perhaps the most important long-term development is the revitalization of the village’s main canal, which is the lifeblood of the local farming economy. For five years, it ran dry. But in March it started to flow once again. As a result, sun-scorched fields are sprouting patches of green.
Last week, Cannon held his final meeting with the council leaders. There was a last bit of business. Walls must be built to protect the village windmills, which power the water well.
The sheiks wanted to make sure they would be getting the money before Cannon departed back home to Georgia. Cannon told them they would.
Then it was off for lunch at one of the tribal leader’s farms, where the captain and the sheiks bid farewell. But before they departed for the farm, Cannon told them the assistance wasn’t forever. One day, the apron strings would need to be cut, he said.
“Eventually, it’s going to be all upon you guys to make things work for yourself,” Cannon said.
Now the question is when.