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New Hope In The Death Triangle

illustration only
by Pamela Hess
UPI Pentagon Correspondent
Mahmudiyah (UPI) Iraq, March 13, 2007
Standing at the painted iron gate blocking cars to the newly named Martyrs Market in Mahmudiyah, one of the capital cities in the so-called "Triangle of Death" south of Baghdad, you would not know the carnage this place has seen.

On July 17, 2006, the market was even more packed than it is today, and women and children were everywhere. The street was choked with cars, as usual.

Two of them exploded. Men appeared on the rooftops towering over the narrow street and threw grenades into the panicked crowd, and opened fire on them with rifles.

Forty innocent people were murdered that day. Another 100 were wounded.

Within a few weeks the debris was cleared, and the people came back.

The market would be attacked six more times by vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDs, by February. Blocked to cars, in October bombers packed C4 explosives into the metal frames of seven bicycles and left them in the market. Five of them were detonated, triggered by cell phones secreted under the seats.

"We got to the point you'd have a VBIED and two hours later, people would be back on the street. It's a message: you're not going to disrupt our life," said Lt. Col. Dan Goldthorpe, deputy commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division.

"These guys will have family members killed. They're very solemn about it and then they move (on). We're more shaken up by it than the community is. But they've lived with that their whole lives. We don't experience that. It's a huge sense of loss for us because that's what we're accustomed to," Goldthorpe said. "They're like, that's another day in this neighborhood."

On this bright, cool winter day, the market street is packed with shoppers and produce.

At the entrance to the pedestrian market there is a painted sign. It is red, green and black, Iraq's national colors, and like many memorials in the United States, it recites a litany of the dead.

The July attackers were believed to be Sunnis trying to provoke a fight in a town that used to be half Shiite, half Sunni. It worked.

"We're sitting on a sectarian fault line here," said Lt. Col. Robert Morschauser, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 15th Field Artillery Regiment.

"It's tough. It's been the most challenging -- this is my third tour in Iraq -- and it's the most challenging so far," he said as he walked down market street to the ribbon cutting.

Most of the town's Sunni residents have moved out to farms on the outskirts of the city. In Baghdad, as many as 100 victims' bodies turn up at the morgue every day. In Mahmoudiyah, there have been 22 in the last two months, said Gen. Ali Jassim Hamad Al Fereej the commander of the Iraqi Army's 4th Brigade, 6th Division.

Morschauser is quick to credit Gen. al-Fereej for the security in town. "He is very smart, very intelligent, tactically sound. He demands respect and gets it," he said.

No Americans are guarding Mahmudiyah city; that is left to the Iraqi army. The local police are not yet a real factor in security.

Like many in the new Iraqi military, Gen. al-Fereej was in the old Iraqi army. He remained on post at the Baghdad International Airport until April 9, 2003 and then he went home.

"I stayed in the military all the way up to April 9 not because of Saddam, but only because I'm in the military. My duty made me stay," he said.

Gen. al-Fereej had a friend working for the Coalition Provisional Authority who tipped him off in June 2003 that the Iraqi army was being reformed. He immediately volunteered. "Because we are born here, we live here, our kids are here, our family is here, our tribes are here. The minimum thing we can do is to serve our country," he said.

Though language, culture, two wars and a decade of enmity would contrive to separate men like al-Fereej and Morschauser, their core beliefs as professional military men bond them together.

"Isn't it amazing? And now we're best friends," said Morschauser. Next: Iraq at a turning point

Part Two

Gen. Ali Jassim Hamad al-Fereej, the commander of the Iraqi 4th Brigade, 6th Division believes 2007 is going to be Iraq's year of decision.

"My personal opinion this year we will decide. Either it is gonna get a lot better, or it's gonna get worse, we might have this civil war," he said. "I believe it's going to get a lot better especially now with the security we have."

Still, his men are not adequately armed for the fight. The insurgents and terrorists he is battling -- Shiite militia, al Qaida in Iraq and Sunni rejectionists -- have long-range mortars that hold his troops at risk when they are on base or at a security post.

"We need mortars, rocket propelled grenades. The terrorists, they have mortars. The soldiers don't have the same range. We would like to have more advanced weapons. More tanks -- we don't have enough tanks," he said.

The enemy can attack at will, often putting mortars and rockets on timers and leaving before they launch. They also launch them from populated areas, preventing retaliatory strikes. Enemy 120 mm mortars are launched from as much as six kilometers away. Gen. al-Fereej is promised 60 mm mortars with a range of 1,500 meters, he said.

Mortars are tricky weapons for a protective force like Gen. al-Fereej's in an urban battle; they kill indiscriminately. But Gen. al-Fereej believes if the enemy knows he has the range to hit them and a counter battery radar -- that traces the trajectory of incoming rounds before they land - it will deter the attacks.

Gen. al-Fereej is a Shiite but his wife is a Sunni. Their four children are named after key figures in each sect. Despite this, he confides he's never actually been to prayers at the mosque.

"I'm not too strong in the religion. I believe if you do good things, that's enough. If you pray and then do bad things..." he said, and lifts his eye brows.

It is religious fanatics, he believes, who have attacked his town.

"We cannot be like Iran or Saudi Arabia. We are different," he said.

One of Saddam Hussein's legacies in Iraq is its history of non-secularism, a tradition at odds with Iraq's neighbors. He did not want anyone - not sheiks, not imams - to rival his power so he clamped down on religion. Islam was practiced, but in mosques that he paid for, under clerics he oversaw.

"We are going to be united, I am sure. What's happening now we want the American people to know we are having a conflict between the politics and the sectarian," said Mayor Moyad al Amary. "This situation is only temporary."

He says it is not about religion but about power, with self-interested groups jockeying for influence or control.

"Every group is trying to control. That's why we have more political problems here," he said. "The sectarian problems are everywhere, not only here. It's all over the world. Even in other religions. We don't have a problem (with other sects). It's all politics."

Mayor al Amary is, says Morschauser, the consummate politician.

Al Amary needs to be. Sitting on the couch to the right of his desk is a dour sub-sheik, the least cheerful person in the room on a day of celebration. His brother was the previous mayor but is now doing time in Abu Ghraib for his involvement with an illegal militia.

He has been the mayor for more than a year; there have been four failed assassination attempts against him. He chalks his survival up to "destiny."

He is now heading the process of reconciliation, trying to lure Sunni's back to the city

"It wasn't the case before. But yesterday we had a huge sheiks' meeting of all the Sunni and Shi'a sheiks, 174 of them from all over the Mahmudiyah area," said Morschauser. "There was a lot of talk if 'trying' to pull back together, with tribal leaders taking the forefront."

Al Amary and the Shi'ite sheiks are proposing they all walk from a checkpoint outside of town into the city to show that the Sunnis are welcome. That Gen. al-Fereej recently captured five of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen with bomb making materials and weapons in two different operations suggests he is serious about providing security for all, not just the Shi'ites.

"We're talking about the next few weeks. We're hopeful that (the march) will happen. Maybe that's a first step, I don't know," Morschauser said.

Source: United Press International

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