Several articles this morning show signs that there has been substantial progress–certainly, more than I’d have thought given some recent incidents–in the Iraqis ready to take over their own security.
The eyes of Abbas Aswad shine, as a US Marine lawyer counts out 16 crisp $50 bills, and places them in his hands. The money is compensation to the Mukhtar village, to fix several fragile water lines broken hours earlier by marines, as they set up positions at the nearby Fallujah railway station.
As this Iraqi front line quiets down – there hasn’t been any shooting in Fallujah in days – the payout is part of a concerted American strategy to shift away from war, and to resume the campaign to win hearts and minds. Indeed, perceptions that Iraq is a nation spiraling out of US control began to change this week. Thursday, the US ratcheted up pressure on radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, by seizing the governor’s office from his fighters in Najaf. Moderate Shiites and tribal leaders have put forward plans to persuade Mr. Sadr to turn himself in.
Back in Fallujah, the Iraqi general entrusted with pacifying the city said Thursday that US Marines must withdraw quickly so that stability can be restored. “If they stay it will hurt the confidence, and we have built confidence. They should leave so that there will be more calm,” General Muhammad Latif told Reuters.
Until such an order arrives, US soldiers are doing what they can with cash, food, and medical assistance. And this kind of campaign can do more than settle a debt. “It takes away their ability to be mad at you…. It shows people that we are here for them, to improve their lives,” says Capt. Kevin Coughlin, the staff judge advocate for 2nd Battalion 1st Marine Regiment who gave out the money. With such payments “you are making an apology for damage done.”
US officers here say it is too soon to judge if this Fallujah peace will hold, but they are making post-war amends. It’s not an easy task. US forces face deep skepticism about their actions across Iraq, particularly after revelations about the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. And the evidence of the ferocity of the past month’s battle for Fallujah is everywhere.
Solatia payments are at the discretion of local commanders, and only provided in countries where it is customary to pay such blood money to end a feud. Officers first planned to pay $400 for the broken pipes – a half a dozen lines of brittle plastic tubing snaking just under the surface of the desert. Aswad bargained instead for $800, as villagers promised to put in a more permanent, larger pipe. The Americans agreed. “In my opinion, it was well worth the extra $400 to get them better pipes,” says Captain Coughlin, wiping sweat from his brow.
The maximum payout through the commander’s scheme is $2,500 per incident, and each battalion can have available up to some $500,000 per month. Far larger claims and projects – some already approved for Fallujah – are handled at a centralized claims office.
But this is the first time that Marine lawyers have been deployed at battalion level, a sign of how much the military recognizes the importance of minimizing the impact of US occupation.
This is a brilliant tactic. Not only does it, for a small amount of money, help build substantial goodwill–for both taking responsibility for the damage but also honoring local cultural norms–but this actually accomplishes the goal of rebuilding the infrastructure much more quickly than a grand, bureaucratic scheme would.
Accused of being collaborators with American occupation forces, Iraqi policemen, guards, and soldiers have endured ridicule, threats, and targeted violence that have left hundreds dead over the past year.
But there are signs that hard-nosed attitudes toward the country’s embattled, US-trained security forces are beginning to soften.
There is no way to tell the breadth of this apparent change in popular thinking. But some dozen security personnel in Baghdad and the flash point of Fallujah report that the views of their fellow Iraqis – tired of the continual burn of insecurity, car bombs, and kidnappings – are shifting.
“It is beginning to change,” says Emad Abbas Qassem, a lieutenant in the Facility Protection Service (FPS), at his post outside a central Baghdad education ministry office. “It’s not only the people, but my wife, my family and brothers tell me: ‘Go to work and do your duty.’ They used to be so afraid.”
Indeed, the number of targeted attacks and casualties against security forceshas dropped in recent weeks, relative to previous months. At least 350 Iraqi police were killed in the first year of occupation; that rate dropped dramatically to roughly a dozen killed during April. Lieutenant Qassem estimates a 50 percent drop in the past month alone. “Because we were trained by the Americans, [Iraqis] dealt with us like we were Americans,” he says.
Members of that Fallujah force say that attitudes are softening even in their backwater city 30 miles west of Baghdad, where residents supported Saddam Hussein, and where numerous Baath Party officials and former intelligence agents have sought sanctuary since the fall of the regime.
“Before, the people of Fallujah did not know our job. All they knew is that we worked with the Americans, so we were bad,” says Private Saleh. “Now they know the job – they see us taking over from the Americans, and they look well on us.”
Though lightly armed, at best, the ICDC forces here say they are treated with greater respect now, and are even allowed to pray in the mosques. Before, they say, their uniforms alone led to expulsion.
“The people don’t have any [negative] business with us,” says Majid Kamel Mohamed, a private from Fallujah who joined the unit four months ago. “We do our job, and people wanted this, because they wanted a stop to the fighting. They want peace.”
Maj. Ahmed Hamadi Khalaf says threats have been intense, and that “many people” have been pinpointed in cities throughout southern Iraq.
“I told my family that I am going to the new Army, to help save the country,” says Major Khalaf, wearing eagles on his epaulets at the Fallujah rail station. “I’ve had [threats] before, but I don’t care. These guys want to cause trouble in Fallujah, so it is not a safe place.”
The legitimization of the Iraqi forces in the eyes of the people is, obviously, a good thing. And, perhaps as importantly, the forces themselves are not only taking pride in their new role but also deciding that it’s worth risking their lives to fulfill their duties. One hopes that this trend will continue over the next few months. If so, a professional force will take over as the Coalition role in security diminishes.
The Coalition leadership, though, is trying to downplay expectations, which is a wise course.:
InsideDefense.com Rumsfeld: Expect ‘Mixed’ Results From Iraqi Security Forces [$]
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld today cautioned against expecting miracles from the nascent Iraqi security forces.
Iraqi civil defense forces have had a mixed record of success since being deployed alongside U.S. troops. Some police officers have clashed with insurgents, while others have simply allowed the insurgents to take over several cities.
“What you will hear and see in the weeks ahead will be mixed,” Rumsfeld warned Defense Department employees at a Pentagon town hall meeting today, given the accelerated pace at which security officers are being recruited.
The secretary said he did not know how long it would take before Iraq’s security forces can exert complete control, adding that “they’re never going to be as good as our folks.” He likened training Iraqi policemen to a parent teaching a child how to ride a bicycle.
“If [at some point] you don’t take your finger off, you’re going to wind up with a 40-year-old who can’t ride a bike,” he quipped.
“The fact is people have got to try themselves. They’ve got to get up and get at it,” Rumsfeld said, adding that many Iraqi police officers have indeed stood up to the plate. “Over 300 Iraqi security forces people have been killed already. Think of that. Does that sound like they’re hiding in their barracks or afraid? No. There are some darn good people out there doing stuff,” he said.
Considering that there were some darn bad people out there doing stuff before the invasion, this is a hopeful sign indeed.