Soldiers of the surge: the vital battle to win hearts and minds
Locating US military outposts in remote Iraqi communities is the latest tactic against al-Qaeda as politicians in Washington clamour for the troops to be ordered back home
Deborah Haynes in Patrol Base Whiskey One
Barricaded inside an old village school south of Baghdad, scores of US and Iraqi soldiers defend themselves against an almost daily barrage of mortar bombs, rockets and gunfire as they try to secure a key road used by al-Qaeda to transport weapons.
The dusty compound is bare, save for makeshift beds. There is nothing to suggest that this was once a place of learning for children. Beyond the blast walls that surround it lie arid fields and a smattering of houses.
This shabby outpost is at the heart of President Bush’s Iraqi strategy. And it is, therefore, at the centre of a raging political debate in Washington that could yet see US troops hurried home.
It is one of four such camps established in the lawless Arab Jabour region since mid-June as part of Mr Bush’s troop “surge” – his last-ditch attempt to curb the violence that is crippling Iraq.
“We did not expect the level of resistance we have seen,” said Captain Dave Underwood, 37, the senior officer at Patrol Base Whiskey One. But this does not disappoint him. Rather, it is a sign of success.
“This tells us we are getting in their [al-Qaeda’s] way and that is good news,” he told The Times from the rooftop of the small, sand-coloured building, where his men – Iraqi and American – eat, sleep and work.
Such outposts give US troops a permanent foothold for the first time within local communities. Previously they had operated from isolated fortress-like bases around the country, going out to clear hostile areas before heading back after a few days.
Colonel Terry Ferrell, the US commander in Arab Jabour, said that the extra manpower provided by the surge allowed troops to integrate better with the public and win the all-important support of tribal sheikhs, who command huge local influence and are starting to speak out against al-Qaeda.
Colonel Ferrell plans to increase the number of outpost to six by the end of August. “We are having an impact on the insurgency in this battle space because people are coming out and helping us, whereas in the past they have not,” he said.
Pushing into hostile regions, however, comes at a price. The death rate of US soldiers has increased since the surge began in February, piling pressure on the White House to demonstrate that the strategy is working.
General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Iraq, is due to deliver a progress report to Congress in September. Failure to convince Washington that the surge is a success could result in an accelerated withdrawal of US troops.
On the ground, some junior soldiers say openly that they would welcome such a move because they are fed up with Iraq’s hot, dusty conditions and believe the mission is doomed. “Surge me home,” said one soldier taking shelter from the sun on a makeshift bunk bed at Whiskey.
But commanders give warning that a hasty exit would be disastrous, especially when early evidence shows that the new approach to tackling the insurgency is bearing fruit.
Stretching across an expanse of dusty farmland on the northern tip of Babil province, Forward Operating Base Kalsu is a vast compound of barriers, tents and trailers from where Colonel Ferrell’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division – the last brigade to arrive in Iraq as part of the surge – oversees its operations in Arab Jabour.
The area up towards Baghdad, snaking along the west bank of the Tigris river, is largely Sunni Arab and has had no real police, army or local government since the March 2003 invasion, enabling it to become a haven for al-Qaeda.
With two main roads cutting through the land to Baghdad and Anbar province, Arab Jabour is ideally located to transport car bombs and weapons.
Colonel Ferrell said that his 3,000-strong force was stopping this by setting up outposts and checkpoints along the main river road and the second key route as well as conducting searches and raids on the many small villages that dot the region.
“We wanted to block the insurgents’ ability to get into Baghdad and we wanted to kill or capture any insurgents operating in this battle space,” said the commander, noting that 240 militants had been killed or arrested since June 16.
One third of the area – which measures about 800 sq km (500 sq miles) but where only about 1,500 people live after more than as many again fled during the insurgency – has already been cleared.
Colonel Ferrell said that the rest would be done in several weeks. But it would take much longer before Arab Jabour is secure enough to be handed back to the Iraqi Security Forces.
Heavily outnumbered, the rebels are fighting back by littering roads and paths with buried bombs rather than confronting the US forces. They also shoot at patrols from afar or fire rockets and mortar rounds at military outposts.
This creates a nerve-wracking environment for the troops who, more than ever, are putting themselves in harm’s way. Colonel Ferrell has lost seven soldiers, mostly to improvised explosive devices in the road.
However, daring to venture down the dirt tracks that crisscross Arab Jabour is the only way to secure the area and make contact with civilians and tribal leaders, which commanders say is the key to cracking the insurgency.
These treks, made at night or early morning, are tense journeys. Soldiers scan the surrounding palm groves for any sign of movement in the long grass. They tread in each other’s footsteps, searching the ground for wires or mounds of dirt. But such risks are an essential part of the surge, bringing troops face to face with Iraqis on a sustained basis.
“You want to use the tribes because they are important social organising mechanisms,” said General Petraeus this week during a visit to Patrol Base Murray, another of the military’s four outposts in Arab Jabour. “We have not used them as effectively during our time here to put it mildly.”
When mortar bombs fall, no one flinches, so conditioned are the soldiers to such blasts.
Bloody attacks by al-Qaeda have already prompted a number of tribal leaders to agree to cooperate with US forces in areas in and around Baghdad, where – unlike in Arab Jabour – the surge has been active for a few months.
“Al-Qaeda are terrorists, also the militias are criminals and we have to stop them any way we can,” said Sheikh Imad Mohamed Talal Gurtani, a senior Sunni Arab leader in Iskandar-iyah, a town also south of Baghdad.
He and about 20 other sheikhs visited Forward Operating Base Kalsu on Tuesday to meet an Iraqi police commander and a major from another US unit that has been operating from the camp since last year.
“With every breath in me, this meeting is the sort of thing we are trying to do,” said Major Rick Williams, of the 25th Airborne. “It has taken nine months’ work and 45 men killed to achieve this,” he said, moved to tears by the moment.
He added: “The real surge is the Iraqi surge. They are getting more people to join the Iraqi security forces.”
Tribal leaders have the ability to deploy a large number of supporters to fight the insurgency. They also have the advantage of local knowledge.
In a potential sticking point, the sheikhs want the US military to arm them – a request that is forbidden by the Iraqi Government for fear of creating yet another militia. This problem was resolved in Anbar province, a former al-Qaeda stronghold west of Baghdad, by creating provisional police units out of local tribesmen, who would ultimately be integrated into the regular Iraqi police .
Although it is still early days for Arab Jabour, Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth Adgie, the commander at Patrol Base Murray, said that such a model should be used there. “If the challenge of weapons gets answered [by the Iraqi Government] those guys will be on the street in 48 hours,” he said. “If we try to do it with just coalition forces it will go slow. We need their help and they need ours.”
Whether or not the mission will be a success is a moot point for US troops living the reality of the surge in the sweltering heat at patrol bases Murray and Whiskey. “I don’t even know why we are here,” said specialist Jeffrey Hankins, 22, who is based at Murray, where most soldiers go on long patrols, snatch a few hours of uncomfortable sleep on low camp beds with no air-conditioning and live off military rations.
“It is like fighting someone who is not there because we are going up against IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. It makes me feel helpless,” he said. Asked if he wanted an early withdrawal, the soldier added: “I hope so. Pull us out.”
Captain William Lyles, 26, disagreed. “We are out there everyday protecting our surroundings. I think we need to stay here long enough to make this country stable,” he said, while on a night time foot patrol. “It is dangerous but I like it.”
Colonel Ferrell, for his part, cautioned that all the good progress in Arab Jabour would go to waste if his troops were pulled out prematurely. “We would go back to where we were before, with the fear of the people and the impact al-Qaeda was having right there in our battle space,” he said.
Local Iraqis touched by the surge of US troops seem grateful for the increased security, but some are scared of getting too close to the Americans in case they leave.
“I cannot help the coalition because I worry that if I do and the soldiers go then the terrorists will come back and kill me,” said Mokdat Ahmed Shahib, a 40-year-old security guard, who lives in a village near Patrol Base Murray. He was speaking as a group of US military medics handed out free medicine and advice to scores of families, who had no other healthcare facilities in their village.
Marwan Faisal Mezhir, a 19-year-old student, took his brother Tarik, 3, to see the military medic about an upset stomach.
He said: “It has become more secure in my neighbourhood since the Americans arrived and I can once again leave my home.”
Triangle of death
The Triangle of Death extends from the city of Youssifiyah in the northwest, to Latifiyah in the south, and Mahmoudiya in the east
The fastest route from Baghdad to the Shia shrines in Najaf and Karbala runs through it
In 2004 the French journalists Christian Chesnot and George Malbrunot disappeared making the journey from Baghdad to Najaf. They were held by the Islamic Army for 124 days before being released
In 2004 reports circulated that insurgent leaders in the area were offering cash bounties of $1,000 (£500) for a Shiite, $2,000 for a member of the Iraqi National Guard, and $3,000 for an American
On June 16 2006 two American soldiers, Pfc Kristian Menchaca and Pfc Thomas Tucker, went missing after their Humvee was ambushed at a checkpoint near Youssifiyah. The bodies were found days later, mutilated and booby-trapped
In June 2007 insurgents linked to al-Qaeda released a video claiming to have killed three US soldiers missing since their combat team was ambushed inside the triangle on May 12
Source: Times archive