The tall sheik in flowing white robes could almost have been straight from Hollywood casting. A fierce look was on the face, and the look at the coalition visitor across the table could easily be taken for a glower. Yet, it was the hands that told the story, as the sheik busily plucked the choicest morsels of meat and other delights at the Ramadan feast and placed them before the visitor.
To call what happened in West Rasheed a tipping is in some respects a massive bit of understatement.
As early as the first part of July, attacks regularly occurred against Coalition Forces. According to those who were there, snipers were a problem, and IEDs were a regular part of convoy duty. Deep buried IEDs had claimed a majority of those who paid the blood price for COP Ellis, and “regular” IEDs and anti-personnel IEDs claimed both equipment and blood. Al Qaeda and JAM or other militias conducted attacks, assassinations, and other activities aimed at the local population.
By the middle of September, the snipers were gone and IEDs had not gone off in some time. Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams remained extremely busy, however, as caches were discovered and either brought into COP Ellis for disposal or reported so that they could be destroyed in place. Outsiders attempting to cause trouble in the area were finding it much more difficult to do so.
The reason for this dramatic change was simple, and to borrow from an old movie: the people of West Rasheed had had enough, and weren’t going to take it anymore. While the Coalition provided support, it was the people of West Rasheed who came forward and provided the people for Iraqi Provencial Police, more often called IPVs, or Iraqi police volunteers. Using their knowledge of the area, checkpoints were set up that choked off the ability of outsiders to come in and create trouble.
Everyone acknowledges that the people of West Rasheed were the ones who did the majority of the work. Captain Lee Showman of the 1-18 sums it up best with “The local Sunnis stood up to AQIZ and drove them from the area with very limited help from Coalition Forces.” Knowing that they had backup from the troops, that medical assistance was there, and that other help could and would be provided as needed allowed them to change things.
Instead of attacks, meetings were taking place. The Ramadan feast was the prelude to the meeting of the local sheiks in the smoke-filled room. In place of the stress of combat, both Coalition personnel and locals faced a long evening of food, discussion, spirited debate, and – ultimately – agreement on a choice to lead security efforts in the area.
“In fighting this fight, it’s not just all about security and it’s not just about how many fighters you can put out in the box. Its about how in the long term you are going to establish the economic part of it,” notes Team Easy First Sergeant Timothy Wilcoxen.
Indeed, while security was a component of nearly every meeting, with the exception of the meeting focusing on selecting someone to lead the local security effort, all the meetings focused on economic development.
One meeting that was part farewell for Capt. Summers also focused on the delivery of an initial grant for developing new infrastructure, while announcing that a grant to clear canals in one part of West Rasheed had been approved. The canals provide water to the farms, and are vital to the area as well water is too salty and requires treatment before it can be used for crops.
Another meeting had a dual focus as well. Two major industrial operations in West Rasheed, a salt processing factory and a meat processing plant, have been out of operation for some time now. Efforts are underway not merely to get them back on line, but to create a market area near them where a variety of products can be sold.
It’s not about making things as they were before. Rather, the people of West Rasheed want to make it better than before. They also want it to happen now. It’s as if they have looked to the west at Al Qa’im and want to make the economic development and growth occur in the same compressed time frame that they have the tip/flip.
While there is often strong disagreement on how to get there, almost everyone agrees on the goal of improving life in West Rasheed. The test that faces the area is three-fold. First, Captain Summers has left along with the 1-18th, who have completed their 15-month deployment. Second, internal divisions could create problems that slow or stop progress. Finally, both Iraqi and U.S. politics have the power to reverse the trust that is being built and all that has been done.
While much progress has been made, as with the creation of COP Ellis, the future is not guaranteed. What ultimately happens remains to be seen, but with luck and a lot of continued effort, what has begun on such an accelerated basis could take West Rasheed – and all of Iraq – to new heights.