U.S. Military Role Far From 'Invisible'

By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 16, 2005

BALAD, Iraq, Oct. 15 -- The two American commanders, armed with black assault rifles and flanked by their security details, dropped in on the mayor of Balad on Saturday to offer congratulations and thanks for his efforts during Iraq's constitutional referendum.

Setting down the phones he held to each ear, the mayor, Fawzi Khalif, wouldn't hear of it. It was the Americans, he insisted, who should be thanked for giving the Iraqis everything they needed.

"No, we're invisible," responded Lt. Col. Jody L. Petery, smiling. "We're invisible."

Commanders had sought to play down the role of the U.S. military in the referendum, portraying the vote as a critical step in the transfer of authority to Iraqi forces. But when the day finally arrived in Balad, an agricultural city about 50 miles north of Baghdad, it showed precisely the reverse: how the U.S. military remains an all-encompassing presence in Iraq's political process.

"To be frank with you, they gave everything to us," Khalif said in an interview. "They secured the area. They helped the local government in every detail related to the election."

Far from invisible, on the eve of the referendum Petery's forces fired nearly 40 artillery and illumination rounds into Balad's unpopulated outskirts to preempt mortar and rocket attacks. F-16 fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters were overhead throughout the day, and U.S. troops traveling in Bradley Fighting Vehicles and armored Humvees provided round-the-clock support.

When the Iraqi electoral commission encountered registration problems, causing hundreds of voters to be turned away early Saturday, officials turned to Petery for help. Even in Samarra, a restive city near Balad that was the scene of two major U.S. offensives last year, local Iraqi officials went to American commanders for more ballots when they ran out.

Asked if he thought the referendum could have been held without significant U.S. support, Army Spec. Christopher Burns, 22, of Tallahassee, Fla., said: "No, I don't, not whatsoever. . . . We have to hold their hand to do everything around here."

The Bush administration has made the establishment of Iraqi security forces, particularly the army and police, the prerequisite for drawing down American troops and ultimately, the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq.

Army Col. Mark McKnight, whose 1st Brigade oversees Salahuddin province, in which Balad is located, praised the performance Saturday by Iraqi security forces, who delivered and collected ballots and manned polling sites. "To me, the involvement of the ISF was the biggest difference" since January, when the U.S. military orchestrated Iraq's parliamentary elections, McKnight said.

Violence is the primary reason American troops are so heavily involved in Iraq's political progress. Bombs and small-arms attacks have restricted entities such as the State Department, the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations. No foreign election monitors were present Saturday. Representatives of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq reported turnout to soldiers and officials at a command center located on a U.S. base.

For U.S. troops, who have been working 16-hour days in preparation for the referendum, the military's unconventional role has become an increasingly contentious issue.

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