The weather this Christmas Eve in East Rashid was a touch cool for many, but sunny and bright. It was a good day for walking, and better yet, for strolling and seeing what was going on, and what the stores had out. Only one still had Christmas trees for sale, the other that was selling them had sold out. The walk itself was unremarkable, and that was indeed the remarkable thing this day.
Today, the worst that accosted Lt. Col. James R. Crider as he walked down the streets of Doura were those who wanted to talk to him on various subjects, and packs of kids seeking "chokolat" and other treats. There were no shots, no explosions, only talk -- and much of that was followed with laughter and jokes.
The memories were there, as he and others pointed out where things had happened, from the first deep buried IED the 1-4 Cavalry encountered to tales of the bullets that had come their way. One soldier pointed out that such discussions were a bit morbid, yet the fact that they were having the discussion and were able to have it with some humor kept it from such depths. For the men of the 1-4, it could have been a very deep topic.
When they assumed control of the area in late March of this year, it was an area racked with violence and no easy solutions. In their first 30 days, there were 52 enemy "events" with more than 70 percent of those being IED attacks. They had zero sources in the population, and there were only 16 Coalition events, such as arrests, that took place. The local population did not trust or like the National Police and it was not unusual for the locals to shoot at them.
In the last 30 days, there have been zero "events" initiated by insurgents, more than 100 sources are active, several hundred Iraqi Security Volunteers have been recruited, and joint patrols are conducted five times a day. Where there were only 10-15 stores in each maholla (think large neighborhood/subdistrict), now there are 110-130 in each. Where streets were effectively empty, traffic has grown to the point that speed bumps are needed to help control it. While AQIZ is still here, there have been no serious activities in the last three months.
How did such a remarkable transformation come about? In large measure, it came from a simple rule: It is about the people.
The enemy strategy was in some ways quite simple: intimidate, separate, convince people there was no hope or help in the new government, convince the people that JAM would come to kick them out and seize their property (or just kill them), recruite the young and uneducated, and use money to leverage in as many ways as possible.
While Lt. Col. Crider acknowledges that "it seemed impossible at times," the solution rested with the people. To end intimidation, security had to be improved. This was complicated by some real problems with the National Police as well as the public perception of them. The solution: stop joint patrols with the National Police so as to build trust with the local population. At the same time, a strong effort was made to engage the National Police so as to help correct the real problems.
In order to engage the public and learn who lived where, Operation Close Encounters was initiated. One part of this was to take pictures of every person in the two mahollas, often by getting people to pose with the soldiers. This was a key part of the information networks being developed, so that the soldiers could learn who lived where, owned what, and was related to whom. Knowing who owned what helped prevent seizures and simple illegal use of empty homes. Empty houses were locked and monitored, depriving the enemy of shelter and safe havens.
Walls were a key component in this as well. The walls that went up prevented enemy flow through, and even helped prevent random drive-by shootings and other attacks. The tall walls that now line a major highway, and are decorated with paintings by a local artist, are likely to stay in place since -- like similar walls in the U.S. -- they help reduce traffic noise. In fact, a park is being created along one such wall, providing a nice place for those in the maholla(s) to come walk and enjoy the artwork.
Also helping were efforts to reduce cash flow to the enemy. Blackmarket fuel was a major source of such, so gas, propane, and kerosene were brought in, and locals were hired to sell it so that there were alternatives.
As security improved, a remaining problem was that of economics. People who are out of work are often desperate, and will do quite a bit in order to feed their family. They make easy recruits for terrorists. So, a series of microgrants were initiated so that people could apply for them to either open a new business or service, or improve an existing operation. To further help, a series of generators were established in the areas, so that people could buy additional electricity to augment the still-shakey power grid. This power augmentation allows proper refrigeration, freezing, and reliable operations for light industry.
Other improvements were clearly needed, from garbage to sewage to more. As these needs were identified, local businesses were hired to do everything from building rails, fences, and playground equipment to picking up the garbage. With local companies doing the work, local jobs were created and the economic benefits helped everyone.
This highly compressed overview does not do justice to the challenge posed to the 1-4, nor to the work required to make the changes and the blood price paid.
Was that cost worth it? Today, businesses are flourishing and people crowded the streets. Children played in new playgrounds and thronged around the soldiers as they walked. People came up simply to say hello and shake hands as the group walked around. Christmas trees were for sale, and all manner and mode of dress could be seen -- including women wearing jeans and walking around with uncovered heads. Local Iraqi Security Volunteers work side by side with the National Police to help keep the area safe and secure.
Perfect? No. Much improved and continuing to improve? Yes. The people have security and hope, and appear to be making the most of it.
This deserves much more, but for now, I simply wanted to share with you a bit of the reality in Doura. Of an uneventful and unremarkable walk, that was so very remarkable to see and do. A fitting walk this Christmas Eve in Baghdad.
I was told that this man is always out, and was out pushing his card around amidst all the bullets and bomb blasts, looking just like this. I thought I should share one of him doing so in peace.
The wall was blank yesterday...