washingtonpost.com  > World > Middle East > The Gulf > Iraq

A Sharp Shift From Killing to Kindness

U.S. Troops in Iraq Torn by Competing Needs to Battle Insurgents and Win Over Populace

By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 4, 2004; Page A14

BAGHDAD -- For Army Capt. Rex Blair, the contrast was jarring.

One minute a few weeks ago he was handing candy to a little girl in a southern Baghdad neighborhood. Then, suddenly, he received word over his military radio that a U.S. patrol had been ambushed along the Tigris River a couple of miles away. One soldier was dead, five were wounded.

A soldier patrols Sadr City. The switch from fighting to friendliness is mentally and emotionally demanding. (Karim Kadim -- AP)

Blair and his unit rushed to the scene, as did other nearby members of the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment. They overwhelmed the insurgents and easily won the battle. But Blair discovered that the U.S. soldier who had died was a close friend.

The next day, he was back trying to assist Iraqis by paving a road and installing a water pump.

Switching from kindness to killing and back, sometimes within minutes or hours, is a strange experience for many U.S. soldiers here. It results from fighting a tenacious insurgency while trying to win over a population and build a new nation. And it demands a mental flexibility that taxes Blair and his fellow soldiers.

"To go from one mind-set to another, that's what has been most tiring," said Blair, a 29-year-old West Point graduate who was escorting a journalist on a tour of Baghdad's restive al-Rashid district. "In all the courses you've had, nothing prepares you for that."

This unusual war is altering not just the way U.S. troops must think but how they are defined. In its campaign plan, the U.S. military command has stipulated what it calls "lines of operation." There is the traditional combat operations line, which means finding and eliminating the enemy. But there also are lines for restoring essential services, developing economic pluralism and promoting democratic government.

Normally, Blair's job would be to manage scouts. Instead, he has been designated company commander for the rural area on Baghdad's southern edge. Similarly, Capt. Jason Whitely, 27, an operations officer who in regular combat would coordinate the issuance of orders, handles local governance matters. Capt. Daniel Ramos, 26, another operations officer, monitors contracts. And Capt. Jason Morgan, an artillery officer, is responsible for telling his unit's story to the Iraqi people.

"They trained me well for firing, but never for seeing U.S. soldiers die one day and trying to help the Iraqi people the next," Morgan said. "Human nature is to seek revenge."

The commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, Maj. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, has cautioned his troops to keep such urges in check.

"The general teaches us all the time that we must maintain discipline and rules of engagement," said Lt. Col. Jay Allen, the battalion commander. "If we're not accountable for our actions, this will very easily become only combat operations."

Chiarelli, a tank officer who taught political science at West Point, arrived in Iraq in March convinced that public works projects could be more effective than guns in deciding the future of the country. As the senior U.S. officer responsible for greater Baghdad, he has spent much of the year having his troops put sewers in neighborhoods that never had them, roads where donkey paths had existed and lights where there was only darkness at night.

Such tangible benefits are intended to boost public support for the democratic order being ushered in by U.S. forces and to reduce much of the animosity toward the U.S. military presence.

"The biggest ammo we have now is money," Allen said. "Many Iraqis are never going to love us, but the stuff we're doing is going to at least keep them neutral."

CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company