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U.S. Troops in Baghdad Take a Softer Approach
Focus Shifts to Reconciling Factions

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.

Fawaz Kashmoola is their "rehabilitation manager."

"The role I play is, when the prisoners get released, I show them love and mercy," said the Iraqi lawyer, a 45-year-old with combed-back hair.

Love isn't all the former detainees get. Kashmoola and his fellow managers line up housing as well as jobs or training programs. Then the managers check up on the men to ensure they stay out of trouble.

On a recent sunny Thursday, Kashmoola and Willoughby attended a detainee release ceremony on the lawn of a blue-domed mosque. The U.S. military has made these into gala affairs, with flag-waving crowds and speeches from Muslim leaders and Iraqi army officers. The 48 newly freed men were handed gift-wrapped bags of chocolates by U.S. soldiers who a year ago might have flex-cuffed them.

Willoughby said the military is sending a message to men who might be tempted by insurgents' offers to attack the Americans: "We have reconciled with you. We are giving you your next chance. Your community cares about you. We want you to learn a trade, provide for your family -- not be putting IEDs for $200."

In his area, only one of 82 freed detainees has been rearrested. Several other battalions in Baghdad have hired their own versions of Kashmoola.

Detainee-release ceremonies reflect a dramatic change in military doctrine. The Army issued a field manual last month on "stability operations" to guide its troops in facilitating reconciliation and providing essential services. It was produced after the Department of Defense in 2005 elevated "stability operations" to the same level in its doctrine as offensive and defensive operations.

"It's a very different Army from the one that invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003," said John Nagl, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security and a former Army officer.

Building support for government institutions is a key part of the U.S. military's pacification effort in Iraq. In Willoughby's area of northwestern Baghdad, for example, American troops have cleaned out sewers, rebuilt schools and put in a swimming pool.

"As you, as a citizen, are looking on, you've got to say, 'It's nice to live here,' " Willoughby said. If insurgents return, the U.S. officers hope, Iraqis will consider what they have to lose.

It can be difficult to assess the effectiveness of some of the American programs. Hickman's soldiers, for example, have helped organize soccer games between Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, providing the young players with T-shirts or uniforms.

The matches aren't billed as peace events, he said, but the parents mingle, re-creating an atmosphere that existed before the invasion. The games draw them from neighborhoods divided by giant blast walls and painful memories of sectarian warfare.

"The nuance here is for the Sunni and Shiite to come together," said Hickman, who commands the 2nd Brigade Combat Team.

U.S. troops had envisioned the Baghdad peace concert as an event for the public to enjoy. But they organized it jointly with Iraqi officials, who are still unaccustomed to such unscripted activities. Park officials barred most people without a government invitation from entering, resulting in scores of empty seats.

Iraqi government officials have praised the American peace efforts but say they have their limits.

Safa Rasul Hussein, the deputy national security adviser, said the U.S. programs had been helpful, particularly on outreach to the Sunni minority. But he noted that some Iraqi parties and armed groups refuse to talk to the American military.

"Maybe reconciliation will be more when they leave," he said.

The Iraqi government has launched a number of its own reconciliation activities, from organizing political conferences to setting up assistance centers for families displaced by violence.

One of the U.S. military's biggest reconciliation efforts involves the Sons of Iraq, once-hostile Iraqis who became American-paid neighborhood guards. The U.S. military considers the mostly Sunni guards to be a critical factor in the drop in violence over the past year.

It has urged Iraq to integrate the guards into its security forces, but the Shiite-led government has been slow to do so. On Oct. 1, the Iraqi government assumed control of about half the 100,000 guards and last week started paying them.

But the U.S. military is taking no chances. It held two high-level meetings with Iraqi officials to ensure they were prepared to pay the guards under their control. When the Sons of Iraq protested that the Iraqi government wanted to cut their monthly salaries from $300 to $250, the U.S. military stepped in and got the decision changed. On payday, American soldiers sat next to the Iraqi troops handing out the cash.

The Sons of Iraq say they're nervous about what will happen if the American role diminishes, especially because many of them haven't been told yet what their new jobs will be.

"There was some talk in the Iraqi media that the Iraqi government wasn't accepting the Sons of Iraq as it should. We don't know what is going to happen in the future," said one guard, Alaa Ghazi.

Ghazi, 27, is one of hundreds of guards who have been accepted into the Iraqi police academy. On a recent day, he took a break from drilling on a dusty parade ground outside the facility.

The Sons of Iraq program would continue to work well "with the help and support" of the U.S. forces, he said. But asked whether it could succeed without them, he shook his head.

"No, no, no!" he cried.

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