UPI Pentagon Correspondent
Baghdad (UPI) Oct 11, 2005
They almost made it home intact. Last month, nearly nine months after the 3rd Squadron 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment took over southern Baghdad and Salman Pak - a former Ba'athist resort town and insurgent playground until they arrived - they lost their first men.
The first soldier was hit with a virulent new kind of roadside bomb intelligence says was built in Iran. It was first seen this summer in Amarah, near the Iranian border, where it killed several British troops.
The second was in a Humvee that tumbled into one of the many treacherous canals that crisscross the area. Four soldiers escaped the vehicle; the fifth man's body armor got snagged. He drowned while his comrades were trying to cut him out of it. They tried to fashion him a snorkel with a tube from their water pack, but it wasn't long enough to reach the surface.
The deaths came within days of each other,
The 3/7 arrived at forward operation base Rustamiyah on Feb. 10, the same day insurgents overran the police station in Salman Pak, killing 18 police, destroying 10 cars and blowing up the police station. A second police station in a nearby town was also overrun.
"From February 10 to April 17, there was no security, no government, no anything that was functioning," said Lt. Col. Mike Johnson, 40, the squadron commander. "No one was going south of the Diyala River."
"There was not enough force structure," Johnson said, explaining why.
There were some 150 hostages taken by insurgents all over the area. Dozens of dead bodies at a time were being found in warehouses and buildings. Bodies were being dumped in the river.
On April 17, the Iraqi Ministry of Interior decided to send its forces. The next day, a major assault was launched with quick reaction forces and a public order battalion to reclaim Salman Pak.
Johnson's force arrived shortly thereafter. Once the cities were settled, the Americans began pushing out into the rural areas the insurgents use for training camps and hideouts.
He is quick to credit the Iraqi public order battalion and other Interior Ministry forces for the stabilization of the region.
"We have a complete Iraqi unit doing what the U.S. unit used to do. Now we can be out there," he said, gesturing to a satellite photo of the green farmland that comprises most of the 500 square kilometer area his 600 men are responsible for securing.
Salman Pak is now a functioning city, with vibrant street markets, restaurants and clogged traffic. The public order battalion shares space with an elementary school; the desks and chairs from the rooms they live in work in are piled unceremoniously in the schoolyard. On weekdays, children in blue jumpers and white shirts attend classes in the same buildings men in combat fatigues sleep and wash.
Salman Pak is not secure the way Americans define it. When the police abandon one of their overwatch posts for the night, they are sometimes greeted in the morning by a hidden bomb.
"They are learning some very tough lessons," said Maj. David Oeschger, 38, the operations chief for the squadron.
There are periodic car bombs in town, and the road connecting the base at Rustamiyah and the town is littered with roadside bombs that claimed two more American lives last week -- soldiers who train and work with the public order battalion.
One of the secrets of Iraq that American battalion commanders are figuring out across the country is this: It is not reality that matters, but the perception of reality.
"Once Iraqis feel secure, things happen. But feeling secure and being secure are very different things," said Johnson.
Feeling secure is largely a function of a steady U.S. presence, in ideal circumstances backing up a steady Iraqi government presence.
American units before the squadron got here would do raids into the area, but they wouldn't stay. The area became a haven for the enemy, which knew it could wait out whatever American forces showed up. The people knew that too, and they were afraid to point out the men who held them virtual hostage.
But the base at Rustamiyah came, and the 3/7 came, and came back the next day. And stayed.
"After a couple of months, the Iraqis began stepping forward. They trust us," said Johnson.
Much of the intelligence goes Iraqi to Iraqi -- that is, from citizens to the public order battalion -- a flow of information Johnson has encouraged. He passionately refuses to be in the middle of this region's political and economic life. He is here for security. The rest is up to them.
The problem is that the U.S. military is one of the few truly functioning institutions in this country. If police departments collapse or army platoons give up the fight, the American military is there to fill in. When the electricity goes down or the water stops flowing, Americans have the connections and money to get it up and running again.
Weaning Iraqis from their American benefactors and turning their eyes toward their local leaders is one of the big challenges in Iraq now. If the people don't start demanding leadership, services and security from their local governors, the new nation of Iraq may never actually provide it.
Johnson thinks he was lucky being assigned such a violent and clearly failing area. Security was so overwhelming a big problem that it is all he could worry about.
"I was really starting from scratch," he said.
So he let reconstruction work ride for a while.
It's a counter-intuitive approach. Through much of Iraq, military officials distribute contracts and reconstruction money as quickly as practical, on the notion that the faster Iraqis realize a good quality of life -- and fear losing it -- the more likely they will be to turn on the insurgency.
An American unit that policed Baghdad's Sadr City Shi'ite neighborhood in 2004 saw a direct correlation between improvement projects and a reduction in fighting.
Johnson took the measure of this heavily Ba'athists, Sunni area and decided to wait.
"Salman Pak was home to the high-level financiers (of the insurgency) and they had total control of the city. But we didn't have hard evidence," he said.
He compared it to the American mafia's hold over legitimate businesses in the United States. The last thing he wanted was to further enrich these men.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, some American cash paid for reconstruction work is ending up in the pockets of insurgents, based on a comparison of serial numbers on seized money.
"By not immediately coming in with contracts, we gave it to people who the population trusted," he said. "We were able to allow the Iraqis to marginalize them."
Johnson echoed a concept expressed by U.S. commanders in other parts of the country: Don't confuse activity with progress.
"What to us looks like progress to them looks like same old, same old," Johnson said -- that is, money flowing to Saddam's powerful henchmen.
Johnson has since funded a modest number of projects based on what people in the region told him they wanted. Chief among them was water around the clock.
Contracts were let for restoring the water purification plan, and for massive generators to pump the water when the grid petered out. Canal water is also being pumped to fish farms and to irrigate fields. Nine schools are being renovated, three in each main town.
Despite the progress, Johnson knows he still has a major fight on his hands.
"The way they've attacked us over the last two months has not been normal and it's elevated," he said.
He believes this is the work of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist and major al-Qaida figure in Iraq, as well as Ansar al-Sunna, an Iraqi religious group.
The two soldiers killed Sept. 26 on the road connecting Rustamiyah and Salman Pak were targeted by a sophisticated new improvised explosive device -- a string of five shaped charges -- that bears the same hallmarks seen in the Iranian-made bombs.
The blast was so powerful it tore the head off the gunner and killed the driver inside an up-armored Humvee instantly. A lieutenant colonel in the front seat had his carotid artery severed. He survived but suffered damage to his brain and will not go home the same man he left. Two Iraqis working for them were injured but are recovering.
Oeschger was one of the first to respond to the scene.
He whispered the details of what he saw at a memorial service for the two men, their boots and helmets and dog tags and rifles, their medals and photographs at attention at the front of the chapel.
His men retrieved body parts from the road -- a fully gloved hand, a Kevlar helmet with a head still inside it.
"Between the dogs and the Iraqis I didn't want them to have any of the stuff," he said.
His team had a regularly scheduled mission to go out on that day, so they cleaned up the site and got on with it.
"Compartmentalization is powerful," said Oeschger. "You move it to the next day, to the next."
On Saturday, the chapel was packed. One by one, generals and soldiers --and even some Iraqis from the public order battalion -- stood before the shrine to pay their respects. Each executed a slow salute, then reached forward to hold the dog tags of the dead, their heads bowed.
It was a grim repetition of the memorial for the two others at the month's beginning.
There are three months left to go.
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Washington (UPI) Oct 10, 2005
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