Change and challenges in Iraq
MUSTAFAR, Iraq – The smell of baking bread wafted over the dusty central square as children clamored to get closer to the U.S. troops and their hulking armored vehicles. Lt. John Sirhal tried fruitlessly to keep order among a group of boys waiting for M&Ms, while Capt. Adam Sawyer calmly walked up to businessmen hawking their wares.Samir Hassan, a 53-year-old shopkeeper, said he was happy with the U.S. forces who have maintained peace around his home. But the Iraqi police who have set up a checkpoint at the entrance to Mustafar have made the residents uneasy, he said, as have the Shiite militias that operate just miles away.”We feel safe here,” Hassan said, waving his arm at the throngs of people in the streets on a recent day. “But now we can’t go to Baghdad. We need to have security in Iraq. The government has no control, and I don’t trust the Iraqi forces.”It is in small villages like these that U.S. soldiers say they are making their biggest strides but also face their biggest challenges. Commanders in Iraq say they can win any battle against armed insurgents and conduct any military operation successfully, but persuading Iraqis to believe in Iraq could end up being the most difficult battle in this war.There are places in Iraq where U.S. troops are greeted with suspicion. And there are others where they confront grave danger.But in some of the small towns that ring the southern edge of Baghdad, the situation is quite different. For many residents, the daily dose of roadside bombs and gunshots that plague the capital is glimpsed only on television. Here, U.S. forces work to provide more electricity, to ensure water supplies are clean and to fix roads. The locals appear to appreciate it, but they also appear to genuinely fear what could happen if U.S. forces leave.Lt. Col. Mark Suich, commander of the 1st Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment, is on the leading edge of the campaign to win over a swath of land south of Baghdad that includes Mustafar. He said the key to success in Iraq is to hand over control to the Iraqis, but that doing so could take time.
“Ultimately, they need to see the government functioning, especially in the area of security,” said Suich, 42, of Greenville, Pa. “It’s a long process to make people change their minds. It’s stuff you can’t do overnight.”In Mustafar, residents are just beginning to trust the Iraqi police, a ragtag group that periodically makes the short trek from its checkpoint into town to buy lunch or gifts. So far, no one has tried to sneak weapons past the checkpoint, and there has been no violence in the village for weeks.It has also been peaceful in nearby Abu Hillan, a tiny collection of houses of Sunni Arabs along a strip of dirt road. Residents there recently teamed with a neighboring town and with U.S. soldiers to tap into an electrical substation, boosting their daily availability of electricity from about two hours to more than 20.”We’re happier now,” said Othman Ibrahim, 23, a fireplug of a farmer with coarse hands and soft eyes. “We like the U.S. soldiers because they came in and made things better. But we don’t trust the Iraqi army, and while there are still militias, we’re never going to trust them.”Ibrahim also has difficulty trusting the government. Though he likes the idea of democracy, he said, he isn’t sure what difference it has made or will make.Sawyer, who commands the regiment’s C Troop and spends much of his time working to improve services in the region, said it could be years before large-scale improvements are made.”I can’t fix electricity overnight, but we can come in and do the little things, and those little things do matter,” Sawyer said, shortly after surveying a vacant building he hopes to turn into a medical clinic. “You will gain more from these things than you can possibly gain from using your weapon. It’s all about taking baby steps.”
Suich acknowledges that his squadron is fighting two main battles, one with armed insurgents and one with the idea of a new Iraq. He said he plans to build locals’ trust of Iraqi troops by gradually dispatching them on joint patrols with their U.S.counterparts.At a compound for Special Operations forces near Baghdad, civil affairs officers are working to speed things up by offering medical services and interest-free business loans.On a recent afternoon, dozens of families lined up to see doctors and to receive gifts such as shoes, school supplies and board games.”There’s no doubt in my mind that we have terrorists coming through the gate here, and we help them, too,” said Maj. Stephen Przybelski, a civil affairs officer from Green Bay, Wis. “Maybe we’ll turn someone. I don’t know how many we can turn, but if we can turn one or two, how many people’s lives have we saved?”One of the clinic’s main forces is Dr. Turki, an Iraqi-American who lives in Centreville, Va., and returned to Iraq to help her country. Turki, who didn’t want to give her full name for security reasons, said she treats many Iraqis who are afraid to be seen with U.S. forces but really want their help.”It’s so hard these days, and I feel so sad for what is going on here,” she said. “I wish one day to open my eyes and see peace all over Iraq.”After Sirhal, the lieutenant, handed out candy to children in Mustafar, he paused and looked out over the villagers who were smiling and waving.”This really does make me proud,” said Sirhal, 27, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich. “You see how they are here? It could be like this everywhere. We just have to be patient.”
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