Iraqis feel for the position of the United States. In an interview with an interpreter for the U.S. Marine unit, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, one Iraqi says that the US is in a “bad situation, no matter what route they take.” Nick, the name the interpreter uses because he doesn’t want the terrorist to know his real name, tells a different story about Iraq. “If the US stays, the Americans will hate their own government. If the US leaves, they (the terrorist) will kill us.” [# More #]
As he works for the US, he builds vacation time, just like most jobs in America. But he can’t take his vacations to go back to his home in Bagdad, because he will be killed. “If I drive to Bagdad, the bad guys, they will stop me at a check point to check my Id. When they see that I’m not one of them, boom. I’m dead”. He says that he loves being an interpreter for the Marines because he is helping his country and the Marines are fun people.
When asked about why he thinks the terrorist have been attacking the U.S. here, he replied, “When the U.S. came to Iraq to help the people, the bad guys see this as an opportunity to kill Americans. That’s all they want, to kill Americans”. “People hate America because they are free there. They think that if the U.S. spreads democracy to Iraq, you know, it could spread to other countries. So they try to stop it”. He said that most of the terrorist are from surrounding countries and that the countries in this area are afraid of the spread of democracy, that’s why they kill people that help the government.
“Iraqis don’t care as much about how is in charge as they do about their actions. They want a do-er, not a talker”. He worries that recent programs put out by the Iraqi government are just political fronts. “Right now, the government is fixing everything, they fix the electricity, the water, the sewers, the lights, the police, everything. We are just scared that all of this will go away when the U.S. leaves”.
He said that he knows the U.S. is spending a lot of money here and that it’s costing American lives, but that the Iraqi people are worth it. He feels that, if the U.S. were to leave Iraq, the terrorist would take over within two months. “They are just waiting for the U.S. to leave. They see the news, they know its coming. They are not dumb people”, he replied to a question about whether or not the terrorist would return if the U.S. leaves.
When Nick was first approached about doing this interview, he was happy to answer questions. As soon as the camera came out, he turned away. “Look, if they find me, if they see me working with the Marines, they will kill me, kill my family.” He wanted his story to be heard though, so he agreed to answer any and all questions.
While security continues to be a focus of priority across Iraq, a substantial shift has occurred in the agenda of doing so. Whereas coalition forces were subject to swinging from modes of both attack, and defense, part in effort to better counter the strategic styles of terrorist warfare, we now operate with greater depth. 2nd Platoon showed me just that as the sun rose this morning. Armed with intelligence gathered from locals, and our own intuitions of notable area suspects, we patrolled through Bennezaid seeking out men of ‘military age.’ Not surprisingly, there were none to be found, so onward we went with raiding several homes. I am proud to say that not only was I too, able to lend a sharp eye in uncovering contraband (a hidden letter from Al Qaida to be specific), but how adept those I embed with are! These professionals know the drill. They know what should be where and why. They know both from past experiences, and also from the tips of surrounding Iraqis no longer willing to jeopardize themselves in account of their neighbors. These established relationships prove to be fundamental in winning the war. After uncovering fake ID’s, hidden pistols and AK-47’s, potential detonators for IED’S as well as wired battery packs ready to be packed with C4 explosive material, we packed up and headed home. This may not have been a big hit on a large cache, but it’s shakedowns like these that continue to quietly remove the weapons and their owners from the street. Just another typical day on the job…
Making it happen,
Samarra, Iraq — “You were an American soldier here in 2006?” asks Abu Saif.
“Yes,” I reply.
“Then you remember the Al Bazzi tribe,” he slyly posits. “We were one of the groups shooting at you,” he winks.
“Oh, yes, I remember,” I recall, now wearing my own grin. “And we shot back.”
He nods.[# More #]
With that, we part ways — but not before memorializing the moment with a photo.
The guys would not believe this. The Abu Saif I met today — leader in the Samarra Rescue Council — is not the Abu Saif we knew in 2006. Same goes for Abu Faruk, Abu Anis, and others in the room. All were High-Value Targets just two years ago — men we tried our damnedest to kill or capture — and today they are our partners.
For a soldier, it’s tough to square this circle — as I’d rather have avowed enemies six-feet under than six-feet in front of me; especially those who may have killed or injured a brother-in-arms. But today — embedded with a new unit in Samarra — I can more easily forget the memory of old enemies than the present threat of enduring ones. The friends of my brothers are — I suppose — my friends, and I’m witnessing the awakening I thought possible in 2006.
The story of the Samarra Rescue Council (Samarra’s “Sahwa,” or Awakening Movement) is complex, with every aspect of its development deserving detailed explanation. Yet I am certain of two things after witnessing the “Sons of Samarra” (SOS) firsthand: One, they would not be in existence today were it not for the persistence and foresight of brave Americans; and two, they are the single most important factor in Samarra’s dramatic, and quite sudden, turnaround. The brilliant counterinsurgency strategy I wrote about yesterday serves primarily to support this indigenous movement.
Ironically, the realization that an awakening movement was necessary came via our enemies’ actions. Am Muhamed, the provincial representative for the Samarra Rescue Council (SRC), says “after years of violence, we finally realized that al-Qaeda was only here to destroy our city.” That same realization is personal for the SRC chief, Sheik Khalid. He has lost 19 members of his family at the hands of al-Qaeda (and the affiliated Al Badri tribe), including his wife and eldest son. Al-Qaeda itself laid the groundwork for Sahwa.
Today, 2,200 SOS are paid to secure Samarra’s streets — with another 1,100 working as unpaid volunteers outside the city. Six months ago there were zero. The patrols I shadowed this week couldn’t go two blocks without seeing AK-47-toting SOS members in fluorescent vests alongside Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Two years ago — and, I presume, six months ago — we could patrol for hours without seeing any Iraqi Police.
This cooperation between the SOS and both ISF and American forces — primarily “No Slack” Infantry battalion — is what makes the Samarra Sahwa movement work. Despite a great deal of initial resistance (heck, they were shooting at each other six months ago) the SOS work alongside formal ISF — Samarra police, national police, and the Iraqi army. They hold weekly coordination meetings, and even man joint checkpoints.
In most parts of Iraq, cooperation between so-called “Sunni militias” and conventional ISF is unheard of. In fact, Samarra’s top security officer — Major General Rasheed Al Hilfi — told me yesterday “the relationship between the SOS and ISF in Samarra is the best in all of Iraq.” This may be a stretch, but nonetheless, the predominately Shia National Police have had little trouble working alongside the Sunni SOS inside the city.
On the American side, cooperation has existed from the beginning. Unable to get support from the Iraqi government, the Samarra Sahwa movement’s six founders (two imams, two former Baath-party intelligence officers, one businessman, and one Saddam-era army colonel) — four of whom I met — eventually approached No Slack at their patrol base in the city. It was a risky proposition, but as they told me repeatedly, “from the beginning, the Americans were very serious about it.”
Initial meetings started in October of 2007, and quickly accelerated when they were synched with a parallel effort by U.S. Special Forces to facilitate the return of key leaders from Syria. Without No Slack’s initiative and Special Forces’ backroom handiwork, the movement would never have taken off. The Sahwa leaders were scared to face al-Qaeda, divided amongst themselves, and inherently skeptical of their former adversaries.
Negotiations continued in secret until mid-February, after which the SOS received four days of training at an American base and then were promptly dispatched to man checkpoints throughout the city. The first few weeks were tense, but al-Qaeda hadn’t seen it coming, and they were knocked off their feet. In the first 16 days of its existence, the SOS uncovered 19 massive weapons caches. The real power brokers had taken back their streets, and the Americans had their back. Almost immediately, attacks throughout Samarra died off, and today show no sign of resuscitation.
The movement’s founders admit that many — if not most — of their members are former insurgents. Yet they stress that most were never hardcore fighters, and their current participation in the SOS centers largely on the $250 they receive each month. Not a bad chunk of change in a city boasting a staggering unemployment rate. That said, the SRC seems to keep close tabs on their men, as I witness the council agree to expel 21 SOS members suspected of having continued al-Qaeda ties.
The events of March 28, 2008, provide the most glaring example I found that SRC leaders are not the shady back-stabbers our media has made them out to be. On this day, Am Muhamed and another former insurgent spent the afternoon briefing the entire No Slack officer corps. The topic: “Tactics of Samarra insurgents and how to defeat them.” The class included personal insights on how insurgents attack, how they escape, where they hide their weapons, amongst other tips. If only the guys could see this.
This is all great stuff, but will go for naught if Samarrans don’t abide. So how do the people feel? Everyone I spoke with reveres the SOS as “the heroes of Samarra.” One local shopkeeper summed it up thus, “With all due respect to the Coalition Forces, it was the Sahwa movement that brought the most security to the city. Today is the safest Samarra has been since al-Qaeda arrived in 2004.”
When I sat down two days ago to interview SRC leader Am Muhamed, he concluded the interview with a statement: “Please pass along a message to your government from me. Tell them to do everything they can to get my boys hired into the Iraqi Security Forces. If they don’t get hired, they will go back to being jobless . . . and we go back to the starting point.”
This is the future challenge of the SOS. Nearly all 2,200 want to join the ISF; and while General Rasheed al-Hilfi and other ISF leaders vow to do what they can to integrate them, the process will be slow, and will end in disappointment for many. On top of this, the Maliki government is suspicious of the program and the American military is hell-bent on reducing the “bridging mechanism” that is the SOS. The later point, however, we can control.
A general policy of reducing the “Sons of Iraq” rolls is correct, as they were never meant to be a permanent force. But some thought must be given to the security implications of radically reducing their numbers. To me, this arbitrary administrative “goal” smells eerily similar to the choreographed battle-space “handovers” many units hastily executed with Iraqi security units from 2004-2006, only to see the territory fall back into enemy hands.
Today, we have al-Qaeda five feet under, and yet could still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The SOS — and equivalent groups across Iraq — have transformed the entire war; and without them, Samarra, and all of Iraq, would not be where they are today — closer to self-sufficiency than they’ve ever been. Success, not speed, must remain our lodestar. And transferring Iraq’s Sons into the legitimate Iraqi Security Forces must be dictated by temperance, not administrative timelines.