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And You Call That America?

Revelations at the Al-Rasheed by Pete Hegseth

Baghdad, Iraq
— While awaiting transport to Samarra two days ago, I spent most of the morning and afternoon at the (in)famous Al-Rasheed Hotel; meeting place du jour for Iraq’s politicians, tribal leaders, businessmen, contractors, journalists, and journeymen.

Describing the lobby scene itself could fill this entire page — with elegantly shrouded sheiks sending seemingly choreographed plumes of smoke skyward as they debate, Iraqi journalists hustling to the next story, and businessmen negotiating contracts between puffs on the hookah. Think of the bar scene from Star Wars. All types, from all lands, converge here.[# More #]

As I wait for my first meeting, I do my best — and fail — to fit in. My first interview spots me easily and we sit near a wall-to-ceiling window, overlooking an overgrown garden and dried up fountain — typical Green Zone landscaping. Tea is served, and while I turn on my tape recorder, my counterpart lights a thin cigar and settles in.

Tahseen al-Sheikhly, a middle-aged Sunni with a big smile and even bigger mustache, is the civilian spokesman for Operation Fardh al-Qanoon, or the Baghdad Security Plan.  Al-Sheikhly and his family have lived at the hotel since May — when Mahdi Army fighters attacked his home in retribution for the central government’s crackdown in Basra and Sadr City. His was one of many houses targeted.

“Forty fighters surrounded our house, and for more than 45 minutes, my bodyguards and I engaged them,” recalls al-Sheikhly. “They [shot] my house with six RPGs, they burned the house, they stole five cars, they destroyed everything . . . and then kidnapped me and held me for five days.” They treated him well, he says, but made it clear that he will be killed if he continues to cooperate with U.S. Forces and work for the Iraqi government.

Yet, he continues. And earlier this week placed himself smack dab in the middle of the Mahdi Army’s former stronghold to host a press conference announcing over $100 million in Iraqi reconstruction money for the beleaguered neighborhood of Sadr City. At this press conference, and during our conversation, al-Sheikhly repeatedly emphasized that this Baghdad security plan is succeeding — whereas five previous failed — because military operations (the Surge) have been synched with “providing and improving services.”

He recognizes that dramatic security gains will only be maintained if they are supported by effectively administered civil services. Winning the war means also securing the peace — starting with water, electricity, and sewage. In attempts to secure the peace, American troops serving in Iraq — of all ranks, regions, and timeframes — have witnessed scores of multi-million-dollar projects fizzle out where the PowerPoint meets the road. Most projects have failed due to unrealistic security assessments or incompetent delivery mechanisms — or both.

Sustained neighborhood-level security is the foundation that will allow this round of reconstruction initiatives to endure where others have collapsed. The security gains in Baghdad are more dramatic then anything seen previously — a model for our continuing efforts in Sadr City.

As for delivery, al-Sheikhly spoke confidently about the Maliki government’s ability to deliver meaningful improvements in Sadr City, citing a “special committee” that will decide how the money is spent. This part remains to be seen. If, how, and when, the Maliki delivers basic services to Sadr City will provide tangible proof of his central government’s effectiveness. Maliki’s record in this regard is thin, and al-Sheikhly knows the people want results. 

Our conversation ranged widely, to a number of topics that merit further examination in later posts: Al-Sheikhly expressed concern over the thousands of displaced families returning to the mixed neighborhoods they abandoned at this time last year. Today, concrete barriers separate war-torn neighborhoods and will remain until all sides agree they can come down. Al-Sheikhly also observed, “if the Americans withdrawal quickly all the troops from Iraq, there will be a bad situation” — the understatement of the day.

The most alarming statement of the day concerned al-Sheikhly’s matter-of-fact assessment of the future of the “Sons of Iraq” (SOI). Their ranks are made up of local Iraqis — some former insurgents — who are paid to protect their neighborhoods and have been a central factor to squeezing out al-Qaeda and Shia militias throughout the country. Tens of thousands of these paramilitary security personnel operate in Baghdad alone — and I have witnessed their effectiveness.

Al-Sheikhly was certain their days are numbered: “The program will be ended before 2009.” The entire SOI program . . . disbanded by year’s end? I ask, incredulously. “Yes, you will see no one wearing their uniforms in Baghdad.” This, taken as the official policy from the official spokesman, was worrisome news.

The previous Maliki plan was to transfer 20 percent of current SOIs to the Iraqi police, while training the other 80 percent for gainful employment outside the security realm. Thus far, the process to meet the 20-percent quota has moved very slowly, with only a small percentage of SOIs donning a police uniform. And from my conversations with American military, the plan to train the other 80 percent exists, but is inadequate.

Even if they are “trained,” scores of those moving into other vocations — electricians, carpenters, and mechanics — will make dramatically less money, on top of the drop in prestige as they transition from valiant defender to rank-and-file worker. Pushing young Iraqis back out on their own too soon — with insufficient police forces to backfill them and/or inadequate civilian training — will cause serious problems.

When I press him on this point, al-Sheikhly responds, “We can’t make all the society police and soldiers. We are against that.” Understandably, the Maliki government doesn’t want a police state (they also don’t want more armed Sunnis in their capitol). Yet these concerns must be weighed against the idle hands of thousands of Iraqi males who, according to al-Sheikhly, may soon be back on the street and available to the highest bidder — al-Qaeda included.

While payment of the SOIs should be passed into Iraq hands (currently U.S. forces pay their salary), a precipitously disbanded SOI in Baghdad could, no would, jeopardize the security environment. This is something American officials need to head off, and head off soon. Most American leaders would prefer that most SOI transition to the Iraqi police, but this is unlikely to happen, so they must negotiate a conditions-based compromise that doesn’t create an instant recruiting boom for insurgent groups.

After exhausting this point, our conversation ends cordially, and al-Sheikhly rushes off to his next appointment, weaving his way purposefully between the Al-Rasheed’s tables and through hanging clouds of smoke. Baghdad is fortunate to have such a courageous, sect-blind Iraqi spokesman in its corner. Iraq will need many like him, making ear-to-the-ground decisions that take full advantage of our hard-fought security gains. Though we might occasionally disagree over the particulars, we must be ready partners in their efforts to rebuild a great city and a great nation.

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