In a proverbial smoke-filled room, political decisions were being made. Towards one end of the hall sat the host and leader, and the decorum that is the norm for such a hall was being maintained. On the other end of the hall, the decorum gave way to a passionate and spirited discussion between several men over the topic at hand. If not for the hookahs, robes, and low tables for glasses of chai, it could easily have been a scene from Chicago ward politics -- or from politics in almost any city in the United States.
Indeed, away from voters and the press, such a meeting would likely have gone from spirited to outright shouting and more. Instead, at this meeting, at least one of the spirited debaters stepped too far over the lines of conduct within the sheik's hall, and went outside to pray and effectively perform penance for that violation. The debate and discussions continued, until a consensus was built so that security efforts could advance under unified leadership and prosperity could continue to return to West Rasheed.
The story of West Rashid is, like the district itself, a study in contrasts. Within the district, Sunni and Shia have long worked together side-by-side and, for the most part, gotten along well. So well, in fact, that marriages have taken place between the two groups. Yet, it is a clearly Sunni dominated district and has seen its share of problems as well.
The majority of West Rasheed is not simply suburban, but rural farmland that lies south of the Baghdad airport and runs east towards the Tigris river. The fine, somewhat dark soil is fertile, and with the gift of water produces good crops and tasty fruits. This area is very reminiscent of the southern part of Georgia and the northernmost part of Florida. The many canals can be, and often are, mistaken for modern wide paved roads by those looking at satellite views. While there are major highways that do border the area, the majority of roads are narrow and often unpaved as they follow the canals through farms and small villages.
The remainder, in the northeast corner, is urban and comprises the southeastern part of what many consider Baghdad proper including Aamel, Jihad, Risala, and Saydiyah. These are not the nicest areas of Baghdad, and never have been; but, they now are some of the most hotly contested areas of the city, for with them goes the hopes of those seeking a better tomorrow, those seeking power, and those who wish to see any form of peace or prosperity eliminated.
It is an area where Sunni enclaves are facing “Shia-fication” as powerful interests seek to drive the Sunni out of Baghdad; and, it is an area where the Shia militias have freely operated and attempted to spread out from urban Baghdad to attack and disrupt Sunni areas. As Captain Lee Showman of Task Force 1-18 (Vanguards) of the storied 1st Infantry Division notes, “Since we arrived in West Rasheed we have seen the Sunni population driven from the urban areas of Aamel, Jihad, and Risalah, an ongoing attempt to drive all Sunnis from Saydiyah…”
Nine months ago, this area was "al Qaeda Central" and was not only an area of combat, but also a major route into Baghdad for terrorists. It was an area in which kidnappings, murders, direct attacks, snipers, IEDs, and more threatened not only Coalition troops, but the locals as well. It was truly hostile ground, and as Capt. Showman notes in a bit of understatement, it was and is an “…interesting area with an enormous amount of dynamics which make it an extremely difficult counterinsurgency fight.”
Within the rural areas that make up most of West Rasheed, the canals were becoming overgrown with reeds and other plants, and water was becoming an issue. Even if water mains and other supplies were not being cut off by various governmental entities in Baghdad, the canals were increasingly choked. Wells in the area bring up water that is salty, and needing treatement before it can be used on fields. With the violence, markets, meat processing plants, salt factories, and other businesses were closed – making farmers and workers both unemployed. The grim economic conditions dragged down an already desperate area.
By the middle of September, however, it was a relative bastion of peace and resurgent prosperity -- at least in the rural areas. Farms were producing not only enough for themselves, but to sell as well. Plans were underway to re-open markets, or create new ones. Meetings were being held about re-opening factories, increasing security at critical areas, and clearing canals that had not already been dealt with. Grants and outside development funds were being awarded towards a variety of projects aimed at not just restoring what was, but making resources better and more widely available than before.
While the urban areas were still in flux, it was also clear that the Awakening was forcing its way in there as well. While there is still danger and efforts to undermine or reverse, West Rasheed has tipped.
This dramatic and rapid change was the result of three things converging to create a force for change that is now poised to move into Baghdad proper. The first is the Anbar Awakening, which has been moving east following the Euphrates river as it flows towards the Gulf. The second is the arrival of Team Easy, the provisional Echo Company of the 1/18th. The third was the arrival of Gen. Petraus and the implementation of modern COIN strategy.