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Monday, December 24, 2007

Move America Forward is in Iraq

The daily blog file is where news from members of Move America Forward is being posted as they can, so keep up with that page to see the news as it comes out.

I am only showing a small portion of their dispatch where Lt. Col Crider explained to them what they faced and how they managed such a drastic turnaround in neighborhoods in Iraq.

So how exactly is progress this drastic possible? How did this relatively small unit take one of Al Qaeda’s strongest neighborhoods and completely turn it around, and expel the terrorists from the neighborhoods? I asked Lt. Col Crider, and to answer me, he wanted to explain not just the solution, but the problem they had faced when they got to Baghdad.

To fight Al Qaeda, you have to know how they operate and what their strategy was. Basically, Al Qaeda was simply attempting to keep Baghdad as unsafe as possible and thus exacerbate sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia. These neighborhoods, which were largely Shia dominated, had seen their Sunni populations fleeing in huge numbers to Syria. Al Qaeda came in and began extorting the local population, intimidating them, threatening them into not cooperating with the US Military. Lt. Col Crider told me how Al Qaeda had beheaded several locals who had tried to cooperate and had been informants to the US. Early patrols had found the severed heads of these unfortunates on the sidewalks. Al Qaeda funded its operations through kidnapping and ransoming people, and extorting them by making people pay for protection. They also had a monopoly on black market fuel. Many people around here need gasoline or propane to power vehicles or generators for their houses, and Al Qaeda had made the streets so dangerous that it was far too risky to get in your vehicle and drive to a gas station, so the terrorists would come in and sell the fuel that locals needed at insane prices. They also went into houses and stole furniture or valuables to be sold for financing more terrorist activities. Al Qaeda was also trying to move their families into some of the abandoned houses in order to try and take over the neighborhoods.

Crider told me that their response came directly from the counterinsurgency textbook. In fact, before deployment here, he said, everyone had to actually read a textbook on counterinsurgency. The response itself is actually very simple, and that is to put soldiers on the ground on streets and neighborhoods 24 hours a day. We really had to make the soldiers a part of the community like they never had been before. One part of this strategy was knocking on doors and asking to come into peoples houses to just sit and talk with them for a while, to ask who they are, what their lives are like and what the military could do to make things better. The locals just wanted to feel like someone was actually listening to their problems, which the current Iraqi government and National Police were not doing. The National Police was also taken off the streets because the locals did not trust them, and replaced by constant US military presence. We were also taking pictures of everyone we were talking to, and building a database on the local population.

Crider said that the overriding principle behind everything in the new strategy was to ‘care for the local people unconditionally’ that means even if there was an IED exploding somewhere or someone had been hit by sniper fire that day, not to get angry at the neighborhood but to understand that the locals themselves were victims just like the victims of sniper fire or a roadside bomb.

There was also a high level of humanitarian outreach. The military came in with soccer balls, blankets, electric heaters, and began selling gasoline, kerosene, and propane at market prices to undercut the black market. They also had engineers come in to replace the electrical systems, clean up the streets from the massive mounds of trash that littered everything and improve the sewer management system that were often overextended, causing disgusting sewage waste to empty out into the streets and causing sickness in the local population. The military upgraded several local medical clinics and build parks, new sidewalks, and put up new walls to stop Al Qaeda from entering the neighborhoods from outside. All of the manpower to complete these projects came from the locals as the military wanted to keep all the money in the community and provide jobs for locals. They also provided small grants to foster businesses and delivered the money personally to the resident’s homes or businesses. On one street there were previously 11 stores and businesses where there are presently 150 on the same street.

To control the population – and thus Al Qaeda’s access to the neighborhoods, they put up walls near the freeways so that terrorists could not easily cross in and out of the neighborhoods. That meant that it was harder for them to escape once they were identified as hostiles by our men, and it was harder for them to come in from neighboring rural areas to intimidate the locals. The walls themselves, while they started out as eyesores, are actually beautiful now, as the military hired a local resident to paint murals on them. To control the incidences of Al Qaeda moving families in and squatting on abandoned properties, they started putting locks on empty houses and asking for proof of ownership and asking locals about their neighbors. Crider said some people would say ‘yeah, I know that guy he’s been my neighbor for 14 years’ and others would say ‘no, I don’t know who that family is, they just came in one day and they don’t talk to anyone and keep to themselves’ so that gave our guys a lot of leads, and it was only through visiting Iraqis in their homes and gaining their trust that the locals started to open up with that kind of information.

Basically we won these neighborhoods back not by shooting the enemy and doing house to house clearing…although there were initially lots of firefights and IED explosions…these streets were paid for in blood, but that’s only because they were so dangerous to begin with. The neighborhoods were won over by winning the hearts and minds of the local residents, by being there for them, and being a compassionate provider. The US Army has basically been the only government out here it now administers everything from electricity to water, sewage, parks and recreating, everything. And they’re doing so very effectively. Now, the locals that our guys talk to are happy and cooperative, and when a stranger or someone up to no good moves into the neighborhood they get multiple reports of suspicious activity.

The last IED incident that occurred in this area of Baghdad was October 16th. There was a HUMMV driving along a road and they noticed some kids jumping up and down from a rooftop yelling “mister, no! mister no!” The truck stopped and the kids pointed down to the dirt road right in front of the HUMMV and said that they had seen three men come and bury something there. It turned out to be an IED which blew up several minutes later, no one harmed.

Crider said that last May, those same kids probably would have just stood there and watched the whole crew of that HUMMV get blown apart and laughed at the scene, but today the kids and the community know that working with the US Military is a winning solution, and a way to guarantee safety and stability for their communities.

So after that eye opening briefing, Crider said that we could go out on patrol and actually see the progress for ourselves. So he gave us an hour for chow and at 12:30 we were back with out Kevlar and our gear on, loaded up into four HUMMVs and we took off to go see these neighborhoods we had heard about earlier, one called Doura.

These folks from Move America Forward are spending the holidays with our troops on Christmas and bless them for doing so and reporting to us regularly.

There is much more before and after this portion I have shown you, so click over to the Daily Blog File and read it all for yourself and look at those pictures.