Nasiriyah, Iraq (UPI) Aug 16, 2005
Two and a half years after the war began, the city that hosted one of the bloodiest battlefields has reached a tipping point, according to the Italian troops responsible for security and reconstruction in Nasiriyah.
There have been no coalition force killed since August 2004 in Dhi Qar province - but not because there haven't been attempts.
Lt. Col. Danico Presta may well be one of the luckiest soldiers in Iraq. On June 5, 2004, he dodged five separate rocket-propelled grenade attacks in al Fudaliyah, a town south east of Nasiriyah, and made a last minute turn that spared him certain death from two anti-tank mines dug into the road.
"I felt very disappointed, very angry. I went to this city to help them."
He took his grievance to the town elders.
"I came here to help you," he said. "And you gave me RPGs. If you don't control that little number of bad people, I don't help you with this list of projects for your city.
"When I pass here and I don't receive RPGs, I can help you."
"After 40 days a representative on the city council came and begged to me to give them the projects," he said.
There hasn't been an attack there since. This is Presta's second tour in Iraq.
The exercise has been repeated elsewhere in the province. What the Italians are finding is that there can be a tipping point in Iraq, but it requires the twin conditions of security and reconstruction to bring about.
When coalition soldiers are not dodging bombs and bullets, they can help install water pumps and generators. And if enough time passes, the villages begin to see their lots improve and know the coalition is to thank.
It happened in Suq Ash Shuyukh, a town on the edge of the province near the vast marshes that have been recently brought back to life. A month ago, when Italian troops arrived to oversee the installation of a water pump, they were greeted by stone throwing children. Last week, with the water finally flowing, the same children greeted them with smiles and waves.
It's at a tipping point, explained Capt. Fabio Pacelli, holding his hand out like a see-saw. It hasn't entirely tipped in the Italian's favor, but the prospect for real stability is there, he said.
Unlike other places in southern Iraq, Nasiriyah has not been a "gimme" since the war. While it is Shi'ite - large mass graves have been located all around the city - it has reliably been the scene of some of the worst fighting. During the invasion, U.S. troops intended to bypass the town but were drawn into a bloody battle by Saddam Fedayeen fighters who took up in the town.
The civilian casualties from that battle were great - around 1,100 according to surveys conducted by humanitarian groups, most of them at the hands of the Iraqi fighters or in the urban cross-fire. U.S. forces lost more than 20 Marines in the battle. It is where Pfc. Jessica Lynch's unit was destroyed and where she was later found in the hospital, along with the graves of her colleagues in the yard behind the building.
Nasiriyah, home to the Ziggurat of Ur, a 5,500 year old temple built on the birthplace the prophet Abraham, was the scene of one of the most devastating suicide bombing attacks against coalition forces in November 2003. At least 26 Italian troops were killed.
And in May 2004, the militia loyal to the ambitious Shi'ite cleric staged an attack on the three bridges across the Euphrates that connects the town north and south. The battle lasted three days and claimed 18 Italian lives, but the militia was expelled.
There was another smaller battle when Moqtada Sadr's forces again rose up in August. At least 62 coalition forces have been killed in Iraq since March 2003, according to data gathered by Icasualties.org.
Presta believes Nasiriyah is overcoming that violent legacy because the majority off all the fighters in each of the battles came from the outside.
"The people here were not against us. The (fighters) were not from here but from another province. They took a good beating from the Americans (in fighting north of Nasiriyah) so they came here," Presta said, speaking of the May fight.
"After three days of battle the Sadr militia left, without eating or drinking," Presta said, with real satisfaction -- proof to him that the work he has put into humanitarian projects is paying off.
"Last year it was difficult to have serious contact with the local people," he said.
Now it happens every day.
The Italians have overseen about $50 million worth of projects in Dhi Qar province, most of them related to water or medical services because the hospital is one of the most important in southern Iraq.
The lesson from Nasiriyah, Presta and Pacelli said, is that things can change for the better in Iraq, and can seem to do so all at once. The improvement happens when security is good enough that reconstruction can take root and the people can see improvement in their life.
That begets more cooperation, and more willingness to turn in spoilers and therefore even more security. It's a formula that is being attempted all across Iraq with varying levels of success.
Iraq's reconstruction is not progressing on a linear path. It is a delicate balance that once achieved and allowed to mature, can yield results. The trick is lining up all the components.
One of the unique components in Dhi Qar was the establishment two months ago of a 17-member reconstruction committee separate from the political leaders in the province. The committee comprises university professors, health care professionals, sheiks and engineers.
No improvement project is undertaken without the permission of the council, which sets the priorities. Presta believes that sense of local control is a key to success.
The Italian military, provincial council, governor and reconstruction committee have signed a memorandum describing how projects will be carried out, and how conflicts will be resolved if there is disagreement among any of the signatories.
"The success of the relationship is the respect of the people," Presta said. "We know we stay in their home, and we stay here only to help the people and ask, 'what do you need?' Sometimes the coalition force imposes itself."
One way the Italians try not to impose is by being out of town by noon prayers on Friday. They conduct a morning patrol, but find if there are armored vehicles in the streets when the holy day comes, it angers the people. The Italians are choosing their battles.
Friday's patrol through town has a simple objective: to see whether the local police are on guard at the voter registration sites as they are supposed to be.
Driving up the tight and garbage strewn streets it becomes clear they are not.
Lt. Simone Iaia has predicted, correctly, they won't be in place. But rounding a corner - a corner crowded with grimy, barefooted but apparently happy children who have abandoned playing in a muddy ditch to beg the troops for bottles of water - a police car comes into view.
The small car is packed with at least five blue-shirted officers, a familiar site around Iraq where police cars are few. It makes a Westerner think of circus cars: when a police car stops, officers just keep piling out.
"At the moment this is the problem of the local police," said Iaia. They don't have a lot of cars. Therefore, they rely on fixed checkpoints heavily."
Those checkpoints are easy to evade, and they are a point of vulnerability. A fixed location that can be attacked, if things went that way.
The Italian forces conduct joint patrols with the police and improvements are apparent. But they have a long way to go.
"They are not organized," Iaia said.
An open store front is issuing bags of rice and flour to hungry families, a vestige of the U.N. Oil for Food program. Women in head-to-toe black abayas float by. Posters of both Muqtada Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani plaster the walls. Nasiriyah's rebellious Shi'ites were punished harshly Saddam Hussein; it is near here some of the largest mass graves from the 1991 uprising have been found.
The Iraqis in town are aware of Italy's passionate internal political debate about whether it should withdraw its troops from Iraq. At least 300 of the force are rotating back and will not be replaced.
Presta uses the debate to make a point about democracy: that disagreement doesn't have to mean instability.
"We try to give this sense to the sheiks in order to give them the idea it is possible," he said.
"Not in a very short time, but in a medium time this, province will become completely stable," said Col. Aldo Mezzalana, commander of Italy's 3,000 troops organized as Task Force Alfa. "The balance is positive, and tentative. They are trying to get trust in us and us in them."
"Now children don't generally throw stones. This is like a spy to say 'you are welcome,'" he said.
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