HIT, Iraq -- Four months into a yearlong deployment in this poverty stricken city of 30,000, U.S. soldiers say they’ve gotten a hold of this insurgent-heavy region and are confident the Iraqi Army will spearhead operations by year’s end.
Iraqi soldiers are leading daily patrols through the town, interacting with the local populace, and even catching a few bad guys – solid proof to their American counterparts that an American-to-Iraqi military turnover in operations is only a matter of time.
Just two weeks ago, an Iraqi-led patrol caught two men with 122 mm artillery rounds in a burlap sack – material which could have resulted in an improvised explosive device, the number one threat to both U.S. and Iraqi soldiers in this mostly Sunni city 70 miles northwest of Ramadi.
The Iraqi soldiers, accompanied by American soldiers from 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, the U.S. military unit assigned to this region, noticed the men during a routine foot patrol near the city’s cemetery.
The Frieberg, Germany-based 1-36 are attached to Regimental Combat Team 7, the Marine Corps unit responsible for security operations in western Al Anbar province.
The Iraqi soldiers suspected the men were up to no good, and called them on it.
“We must have walked past, I don’t know, thousands of people on that patrol,” said Army 1st Sgt. David B. Sapp, company first sergeant for 1-36’s Apache Company, which controls operations in Hit’s southeastern sector. “They saw someone in that cemetery, questioned why he was there, and found out he had a bomb.”
It’s scenarios like these that bolster American confidence in the Iraqi soldiers’ abilities. Iraqi patrols are resulting in about five captured insurgents per week, according to one Iraqi sergeant, who recently led a short foot patrol near the same cemetery where the bomb-toting man was captured two weeks earlier.
“They (U.S. soldiers) have really embraced the idea of using them (Iraqi soldiers) as not just tag-alongs, but they’ve trusted them with key missions,” said Army Capt. Eric W. Stainbrook, the 29-year-old commander of Apache Company. “They trust them.”
After dismounting two U.S. Army Bradley fighting vehicles, Iraqi soldiers, accompanied by a handful of American soldiers, walked several streets in the city during a recent foot patrol, occasionally speaking with local families.
When questioned, the families said they could not talk about the insurgents because they would be killed for doing so. It’s a frustration Iraqi and U.S. soldiers deal with when interacting with the local community.
“Some people are different, some people will help and give information,” said Sgt. Aihmed Ayeed Jabar, an Iraqi squad leader, through an interpreter. “Some of these guys know bad guys, but won’t say anything. They say they can’t give information. They say, ‘Bad guys know me, and will kill me.’”
The U.S. military is also trying a more subtle approach when conducting military operations in the city to help ease tensions between locals and coalition forces. Instead of causing more damage, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers want to help locals rebuild.
“Do you have to kick the door in when you can knock? Most people will let you right in,” said Maj. William Duvall IV, 1-36’s executive officer. “I can’t think of a single case when we had to do that.”
Duvall travels to one of the city’s government buildings once every two weeks to make claims payments to citizens who have had property damaged during U.S. military operations. So far, 1-36 has paid nearly $100,000 to locals to compensate them for everything from broken windows and doors, to damaged vehicles, said Duvall.
“We’re settling a lot of past claims, everything from kinetic operations damage to fender benders,” said Duvall, a 35-year-old from Charleston, S.C.
But compensation payments are not the end-all answer to Hit’s problems, said Duvall. The threat of IEDs, although reduced in recent months, is still out there. Iraqi and American soldiers must continue to patrol the city’s streets to disrupt insurgent activity.
So far, Iraqi soldiers have proven their worth as a legitimate, organized military unit capable of handling military operations in the city, according to U.S. soldiers who work daily with Iraqi military forces.
“They’re biting off a lot of it now, and they’re doing great,” Duvall said. “But they’re still on a tight leash, and we’re there in case they stumble.”
Still, U.S. soldiers say the Iraqis are more than just uniformed men with rifles on the streets; they’re effective military operators, and are crucial to earning the trust of the city’s locals, even if just a few people at a time.
In Al Anbar Province, IEDs remain the number one threat against Coalition and Iraqi forces, although there is still the occasional mortar attack here against 1-36’s various firm bases, which are scattered throughout the city’s neighborhoods.
So far, local residents have been less-than-cooperative with American soldiers in giving up the names and locations of insurgents in the area, as well as the location of IEDs. U.S. soldiers are hoping the heavy Iraqi military presence – Iraqi soldiers providing security for Iraqi people – will change that.
“They’re (Iraqi soldiers) more focused now. They’re identifying things before they happen,” said Army Sgt. Mario Nelson, a 26-year-old infantryman from Brooklyn who has spearheaded the training and mentoring of the Iraqi Army unit partnered with Apache company for several months now.
Last week during a patrol, Iraqi soldiers found a man armed with a rocket-propelled grenade in a car, and captured the man without having to fire a shot. The Iraqi soldiers have a knack for fingering the “bad guys,” and each capture means one less IED on the streets, according to Stainbrook, a native of Spokane, Wash.
Known for hiding amongst the populace, insurgents rarely engage U.S. and Iraqi soldiers face to face, making it hard to identify friend from foe. Stainbrook says both U.S. and Iraqi soldiers are developing better eyes for spotting IEDs before they detonate, and are seeing an impressive decrease in IED activity since 1-36’s arrival.
Prior to 1-36’s arrival, U.S. military units rotated in and out of Hit, never remaining in the city for more than a couple months at a time. In the past seven months, 10 U.S. military units have come and gone, say U.S. soldiers here.
The current U.S. unit is here for a one year deployment, which allows U.S. and Iraqi forces to provide a more consistent presence, and helps earn the trust of local citizens, said Duvall.
“We told ‘em we were going to be here more than three weeks,” said Duvall. “They didn’t believe us at first.”
A year-long deployment in this ancient city for 1-36 allows times for soldiers, both U.S. and Iraqi, to learn the territory, learn the enemy’s tactics, techniques, and procedures, which in turn U.S. soldiers here, say leads to stopping insurgent activity.
“It’s more under control,” said Stainbrook. “At the soldier level, there’s more thinking as to where (IEDs are) placed, and how they are being placed.”
U.S. soldiers view the Iraqi Army unit here – the 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, of the 7th Iraqi Division – not as their ticket home, but instead as the glue to future security and stability in the region which may keep 1-36 from serving a third tour in Iraq’s war-torn Al Anbar Province.
The battalion, part of the Army’s 1st Armored Division, was deployed for 15 months in Iraq last year – three months longer than originally planned, according to several soldiers who deployed with 1-36 last year.
“We may not go home early, but they’re our ticket not to return,” said Sapp, a 36-year-old from Metter, Ga., currently serving his first full-deployment with the battle-hardened 1-36.
When the U.S. Army arrived in the city earlier this year, daily patrols consisted of mostly American troops, with just a handful of Iraqi soldiers in tow. Now, Iraqis plan their own missions, and execute them entirely on their own, while American soldiers provide support – such as armored vehicles for transportation in and out of the volatile city.
Once dismounted from their tracked Bradleys, the Americans keep their distance and allow the Iraqi soldiers to take the lead, and are on-site only to give advice and help document military-aged males in the city. After speaking with the families’ men, Sapp’s soldiers photograph the Iraqi men as a way of keeping a record on who’s who in the neighborhoods.
Keeping tabs on the city’s population help the U.S. and Iraqi soldiers know who legitimately resides in the city, and who may be up to no good.
“It’s just to get a feel on the local populace; to get to know the town people,” said Sapp. “We can find out who’s working, who’s not, and who may be placing IEDs.”
“Let’s say this guy ‘Mohamed’ says another guy shot his house. If we catch (the shooter), we can run him through our database,” said Nelson.
That, in turn, helps U.S. and Iraqi forces police the streets, said Nelson. Ultimately, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers agree that an Iraqi police force in the city would add additional security, and may even win the trust of locals, since most Iraqi police forces are typically homegrown.
Some U.S. soldiers here say that the more presence Coalition and Iraqi forces have in the city’s streets – Iraqi soldiers, U.S. soldiers, Iraqi police – equals less insurgent activity, which means a better chance for infrastructure and governance to improve in the region.
“Presence means we’re not getting mortared,” said Nelson, who says the Iraqi soldiers are more than capable now to run military operations in the city then they were just a few months ago.
“At first, we would have to give all the guidance for missions – turn left here, turn right here, go knock on that guy’s door,” said Nelson.
As the Iraqi Army here continues to progress toward fully-independent, self-supporting operations, U.S. soldiers here feel they have set their Iraqi counterparts up for success, and expect them to be fully capable of handling security operations in Hit long after the U.S. leaves permanently.
“I think they’ll do a much better job than we’re doing now,” said Nelson, matter-of-factly, following the one-hour patrol with Iraqi soldiers. “They get info we can’t, and they’re more versatile. Besides, we want to show the IA (Iraqi Army) is in charge, not Americans.”
Email Staff Sgt. Goodwin at: firstname.lastname@example.org