Friday, February 22, 2008

Bringing Down the House in Samarra

February 22, 2008

When the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade was deployed in 2005, most of the soldiers, including the 2nd Battalion’s Charlie Company, were stationed at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Warrior in Kirkuk. It wasn’t until they were deployed again in 2007 that most of these soldiers realized how good they had it in Kirkuk.
Charlie Company is in Samarra now, at Patrol Base (PB) Olson. PB Olson is located on the Tigris River, but that’s about all it has going for it. The main building on the base was once a casino, and though now there is the occasional card game in a quiet room near the medics’ aid station, today most of the gambling occurs when the soldiers leave the base and patrol the city.
Samarra is probably safer than it was even six months ago, but it is still risky to leave the safety of the trucks. Before I had a chance to figure out if PB Olson had anything resembling a women’s room, I was out with the 1st Platoon, watching where I stepped on the trash-strewn streets of Samarra.
Lieutenant Matt Bryant and Sergeant Dietrich Stallsworth were armed with weapons. And cash. This was one of those battles for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, and money talks.
Several homes in one Samarra neighborhood had been damaged by gunfire from Coalition Forces--air support trying to take down an insurgent after watching him install an IED. Lieutenant Bryant and Sergeant Stallsworth interviewed homeowners, who pointed out broken windows or damaged gates or walls or cars, and then tallied the cost of repairs and presented each homeowner with an amount that seemed ample. The general reaction was one of gratitude.
A second series of payments were made to people whose homes had been damaged by the National Police (NPs). The NPs are members of an Iraqi force sent from Baghdad to Samarra to supplement the local police force, and, thanks to sectarian differences and just a general abuse of power, the experiment has not worked very well.
After one of their policemen was killed, the NPs descended upon the area of the city where the murder occurred. They kicked in a lot of gates, confiscated a lot of AK-47s (which homeowners are allowed to own in Iraq), and scared a lot of innocent people. Our soldiers were anxious to try to repair at least some of the damage caused by the National Police before the situation grew worse.
Whether or not the residents of these neighborhoods expected to be compensated for the damage caused by the NPs, they seemed to appreciate the effort our soldiers were making to right the wrong. Because the damage was more widespread and the thefts associated with it more difficult to prove, it would be impossible to compensate everyone adequately. And yes, there were people who tried to receive payment for false claims. But Lieutenant Bryant and Sergeant Stallsworth tried to acknowledge as many legitimate claims as they could.
The National Police were punished for their misdeeds; some were fired. But it will be a long time before the people of Samarra regard them as a benevolent force.
Day Two at Patrol Base Olson (and no, there is no women’s room, but the men have let me share theirs) meant more patrols of the city. This time I went out with the Scouts of Charlie Company. Lieutenant John Vickery and his very entertaining team let me ride along in their MRAP (Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected) on a morning and an evening patrol.
During the morning patrol, we dismounted several times. Lieutenant Vickery took the opportunity to ask the residents of Samarra how they felt about the level of safety in the city, and what they thought about the development of a Concerned Local Citizen (CLC) group in their area. The CLC groups are a growing phenomenon in the country. Once known as the Awakening Council, now known as the Concerned Local Citizens, but perhaps becoming the Sons of Iraq, no matter what they are called, these groups are forming throughout the country, and are generally considered a good thing. Fingers crossed.
At one home, the women of the house were making bread outside. Round, flat bread that is a staple in Iraq. While Lieutenant Vickery talked to one of the women, I stared at the bread. The Iraqi people may be stingy with the information they are willing to give us, but they are very generous in other ways. As we left, one of the women who had been working steadily during the conversation presented me with two big rounds of bread, warm from the oven, and I felt as though it was my lucky day.
Most of the conversations went as Lieutenant Vickery imagined they would. People seemed to think the CLC was a good idea, that security provided by local citizens was preferable to whatever the National Police were providing. Everyone claimed to live in a good neighborhood free of insurgents.
Lieutenant Vickery said in the early months of the deployment any trip into the city would draw some kind of fire, but our morning patrol had gone smoothly, and our evening patrol, which consisted of driving up and down many of the city’s streets on the lookout for suspicious activity, was also without incident. Over time, these patrols have made a difference.
The guys in the truck joked with each other throughout the morning and the night, and it is fun to witness a level of camaraderie that is probably only achieved in a combat zone, or perhaps some retail environments. One of the soldiers, Sergeant Steve Oldaker, turned twenty-seven, and was treated to a pink belly at the end of the long day. Some soldiers will celebrate two birthdays in Iraq during this fifteen month deployment.
Patrol Base Olson is no Bellagio. The soldiers of the 2nd Battalion’s Charlie Company make do with very little. What was once a casino is now the home of a bunch of soldiers who show up each day and who play the hand they are dealt. They will stay in the game until it is time to go home, and if the bad guys are smart, they will fold long before that.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Battle for Bayji

February 9, 2008

Walking the streets of Iraq is not always safe, and with the raw sewage and garbage that often litter the streets, it is not always easy either, but for our troops it is all in a day’s work. In an effort to build goodwill between the people of Bayji and the officials of the city, a foot patrol was organized. Among those on the ground were the Mayor of Bayji and other high-ranking city officials, Iraqi police and soldiers, and members of the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade’s 1st Battalion, including Lieutenant Colonel Pete Wilhelm, Sergeant Major James Bodecker, and Captain Tim Meadors.
Bayji is the home of the Bayji Oil Refinery (the BOR), the biggest oil refinery in Iraq, but this doesn’t translate to wealth for everyone, or even gas for everyone. The only thing that touches everyone in Bayji is corruption.
The Refinery is a blessing and a curse. If the clouds overhead suddenly began to rain money, most of us would scramble to collect our share. Some of us would push other people out of the way so we could take their share too. That is the effect the Refinery has had on many people in Bayji and beyond. The government should manage the flow of resources but how many government officials are going to be able to resist putting their hand in a pot so big? It would almost be bad business to turn away such easy money.
In spite of the fact that the Refinery is currently working at capacity, residents sometimes have difficulty obtaining gasoline and kerosene. Gas stations are often closed. An open gas station is easy to spot as the line of cars can extend as far as the eye can see. Black market gas is for sale on most main streets, sold in plastic jugs, often by enterprising boys—both the buyers and sellers on some level part of the corruption, the proceeds of these sales potentially fueling insurgent activities.
Each province in Iraq is allotted a specific amount of kerosene, but for some reason Bayji does not get enough to meet the demand of its residents, which increases during the winter months. Mr. A---, Chief of Operations at the BOR, has been frustrated by this inability to make kerosene available to those in need, and has requested an addition to the allotment for Bayji, the distribution of which will be handled by the Mayor, as if he doesn’t have enough to worry about.
The Mayor of Bayji has a fantastic head of hair and he carries a gun. It is strapped to his waist under his nicely tailored suit, and who can blame him. For our soldiers, part of their mission is to identify the good people and lend them our support, to identify the bad people and take away their power. The Mayor has to walk a fine line between the good and the bad. If he decided to go after the bad people, to capture those involved in any of the many rings of corruption, well, first he would have to figure out which of his police are among them, and then he would have to go into hiding or he would be killed.
For many of Bayji’s residents the desire to profit from the riches pouring out of the Refinery translates to fairly modest expectations. They are not terrorists, just people trying to get on with life. Presented with the opportunity to express their hopes for Bayji to the Mayor himself, citizens spoke out. They want the things we take for granted: a steady and dependable supply of electricity, water, and fuel. An outspoken woman employed at a girls’ school stressed the need for better security. Anyone not willing to turn a blind eye to insurgent activity is taking a risk, and often there is the sense that local police are doing nothing to help.
Everyone in Iraq has to decide whether he or she wants to be part of the problem or part of the solution. To complicate matters, there are so many problems in Iraq that it is certainly possible to be part of more than one. And there is a shortage of solutions.
By hitting the streets of Bayji, the officials of the city and the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division hope to be part of the solution. As with so many of these goodwill missions, there is only so much the soldiers can do. The response to their presence is often mixed, but there were plenty of friendly faces in the crowd as they moved from one neighborhood to another. Maybe the citizens of Bayji are beginning to realize they must pick their battles, and it doesn’t make any sense to fight the people who are trying to help them.