U.S. Troops in Baghdad Take a Softer Approach

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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2008

BAGHDAD, Nov. 19 -- It was billed as a peace concert in war-scarred Baghdad. But after 30 minutes of poetry and patriotic songs, only a scattering of tribal leaders and dark-suited bureaucrats were sitting in the vast expanse of white plastic chairs before a stage painted with doves.

That didn't trouble Col. Bill Hickman, whose soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division helped organize the event.

"We have sheiks from different places who will sit here and talk to each other," he said, standing at the edge of the audience with his men, a striking sight in their body armor and night-vision goggles.

With violence down sharply this year, the U.S. military is broadening its efforts to reconcile Sunnis and Shiites, reintegrate former insurgents into society and repair the rift between residents and their government.

But as American forces begin to withdraw, some Iraqis question the long-term impact of the pacification campaign. Iraq has no history of democracy, and the government that has come to power since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion is sharply divided along sectarian lines.

"The idea or identity of this is American, not Iraqi," Kassim Daoud, a former Iraqi national security minister, said of the U.S. efforts. Although the Iraqi government has declared its support for reconciliation, he said, "it hasn't got a real program or a map."

At the concert, city officials spoke glowingly about reconciliation. But some in the audience acknowledged that reality lagged far behind.

Abdul Ameer, 48, a Shiite who attended the event with his two young sons, said he had Sunni friends but couldn't visit them. The friends live in the town of Tarmiyah north of Baghdad, he explained: "It's only for Sunnis. I can't feel safe if I go there."

The U.S. reconciliation campaign includes some major projects, but much of the American effort is decentralized, consisting of reconstruction programs, peace marches and meetings with rival tribal leaders over platters of rice and lamb. In many cases, soldiers are making up the details as they go along.

Lt. Col. Monty Willoughby, 42, has had to figure out how to keep the peace in an area of northwestern Baghdad that was previously a hotbed of Sunni insurgents. He became worried last spring when U.S. commanders announced a plan to release thousands of Iraqis detained for alleged ties to insurgents.

"We're like, man, how are we going to keep these guys from falling back into it?" asked Willoughby, an earnest, freckled officer from Clever, Mo., who commands the 4th Squadron of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, which is attached to the 101st Airborne.

Willoughby decided he needed someone to help the detainees reenter society. And that is how a squadron of macho U.S. infantrymen and gung-ho tankers came to hire their first professional nurturer.


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