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Up and Over the Palm Tree by Pete Hegseth

Samarra, Iraq — Our foot patrol approaches the end of the street, where a dozen men seek shade from the midday sun. Some 20 meters away, young men in fluorescent-yellow reflective vests stand enduring the full force of the scorching heat. The local boys look like heavily armed school crossing-guards as they check cars entering the neighborhood. We walk past them and the giant barriers they guard to engage a group sitting around a corner convenience store. [# More #]

Shop owner Abdul Kadir, a resident of Samarra for 20 years, breaks from the group to greet us. “Fogun Nouhal,” he says casually. I turn to the interpreter immediately, as this is a greeting I never heard in my eight months in Samarra. He laughs and says it means he is “excellent,” and can “finally breathe the fresh air.” Literally, it translates to “up and over the palm tree.”

Abdul Kadir and his neighbors in the Dubout district of Samarra, have not always been “up and over,” but instead have spent most of the past five years down and out. Dubout, which translates to “Officer,” was home to most of Saddam’s loyal military officers in Samarra and became a pocket of resistance in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Three years later, it was Al Qaeda’s top hideout in Samarra. The blocks we walk today were daily battlefields in 2007, and sketchy at best when I was here in 2006.

Not so today. Dubout is now one of the safest neighborhoods in Samarra. In fact, it lies at the heart of a transformed city, freed from the grip of fear and poised for lasting stability. Women walk freely to markets, kids run gaily in the street, and Iraqi Security Forces patrol without masks on — unafraid of their central-government affiliation. One of the primary reasons for this change is the “Safe Neighborhoods” counter-insurgency program implemented by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph McGee’s “No Slack” Infantry Battalion.

In coordination with the up-and-coming Sons of Iraq (SOI) movement, “Safe Neighborhoods” has empowered the local population to expel insurgents without overtly putting their own lives at risk. With the heavy lifting — and trigger-squeezing —
left to reinforced U.S. forces and emboldened Iraqi Security Forces, Samarrans soon felt comfortable enough to help Al Qaeda’s encroachment here. Sounds simple enough, right? Think again. Block by block, I heard the relief in their voices, and the relaxation in their faces.

Following months of sustained violence, in November 2007 “No Slack” set the conditions for a neighborhood-by-neighborhood operation by systematically sealing off the city from unauthorized vehicle traffic and beefing up checkpoints into the city. With substantial help from Iraqi Security Forces and the SOI, “No Slack” saturated the city with troops, fighting insurgents block-by-block, eventually pushing Al Qaeda outside the city limits.

This type of operation had been tried before numerous times in Samarra — to great fanfare in the media, but little avail on the ground. Usually — as in 2006 — the lull in violence was short-lived and soon followed by a sustained counterattack by Al Qaeda that re-established their ascendance over the months that followed. We employed what might be called a shampoo policy: We’d lather; they’d rinse; we’d repeat.

However, in March of this year, LTC McGee’s boys — with the help of their Iraqi partners — set out to clean up Samarra once and for all. Faced with tacit resistance from higher-ups, LTC McGee persisted nonetheless. He knew the same old patrols launched from the same old patrol bases would not get the job done. The population must be secured first — something that, tragically, had never been done in five years of American presence in Samarra. 

When the first giant concrete walls and local armed guards arrived in Dubout, I’m told the locals weren’t sure what to make of it. They had heard of similar approaches in Baghdad, but were still skeptical that restive Samarra could likewise be secured. They soon found out that the plan involved far more than concrete barriers guarded by men in fluorescent-yellow vests.

Once the barriers were in place, U.S. and Iraqi forces cleared individual neighborhoods by knocking on doors and entering each home peacefully. Once inside, they would conduct a full census, gathering biometric data and taking photos of all the adult males, and taking a full count of everyone living in the household. Before leaving, they stenciled the house address and number of cars, males, and residents on the wall outside the house. This census results can be reviewed in a database back at HQ, but the real results can only be read in the faces of Samarrans.

The process — which seems intrusive on paper — is in fact liberating for the local residents. Watching Americans go house to house, the realization sets in that everyone now has a ready-made excuse not to house al Qaeda. “You can’t stay here,” a Samarran resident might say, “The Americans know who is in my family, and if they search my house, they will find you.” Some families stand outside to ensure their house is included; a few families flagged down Americans when their house was inadvertently missed.

For many residents of Dubout, the process was the first one-on-one interaction they had had with an American soldier — the first time they got to see the faces under those helmets in the Humvee. “Inadvertently,” observes LTC McGee, “the entire process was humanizing for both sides.” These interactions eventually led to lasting relationships, which inherently leads to intelligence: Freed from the fear of having their homes infiltrated by Al Qaeda, the local population was empowered to identify the foreign insurgents in their broader neighborhood.

Soon after the census in each neighborhood, the civic interaction phase begins — as the mayor, city council members, and local directors visit the neighborhood to assess needs and hear local gripes . . . a good exercise for any politician. “No Slack” attempts to close the loop by creating “revitalization teams” that partner with local leaders to hasten local civic improvements. This process remains slow, but the gears are moving.

This pattern — Clear, Hold, Build — continues to this day, as the god guys continue to systematically gobble up terrain from the bad guys. Eventually, the concrete walls will go away and guards will stand down; but for now, everyone I spoke with across the city favors the security procedures. “The walls protect us for now, and we appreciate the new safety we have everywhere in the city” says a shy local resident.

Since the war began, Samarra has always been a lagging indicator. While most of Iraq was embroiled in civil war in 2006, Samarra made superficial progress. As the rest of the country embraced the “awakening” in early 2007, Samarra languished. And when the rest of Iraq “surged” to stability in late 2007, Samarra erupted. Today, finally, the city is cooling down — the lagging indicator is catching up.

In a place that many considered to be lost in time — choked by smoldering sectarian tensions that were then fanned to flame by foreign terrorists — the smoke is finally clearing. Up and over the palm tree it is.

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