Sunday, April 6, 2008

Soldiers, Iraqi Community Leaders Discuss Rebuilding Effort

Army Capt. Brian Gilbert, commander of Company D, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, left, and Army Lt. Col. John Kolasheski, commander of 3rd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, center, speak with Mahmud Jabllawe, the leader of the Sons of Iraq group in Tuwaitha, a small village east of Baghdad, during a meeting at Jabllawe's house, March 21. (Photo/ Spc. Ben Hutto, 3rd Infantry Division, 3rd Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs)

By Spc. Ben Hutto
3rd Infantry Division,
3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORWARD OPERATING BASE HAMMER, Iraq - A March 21 gathering in a small village east of Baghdad looked more like a friendly visit than a meeting on reconstruction.

Army Lt. Col. John Kolasheski, from Loudon, Tenn., commander of 3rd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, and Mahmud Jabllawe, leader of the Tuwaitha "Sons of Iraq" community security group, chatted like old friends.

Kolasheski inquired about Jabllawe's upcoming doctor's appointment, as Jabllawe offered chairs and chai to him and Army Capt. Brian Gilbert, from Boise, Idaho, commander of Company D, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment.

The conversation quickly moved to business after Kolasheski gave his host a small water purifier as a house-warming gift.

Removing their boots, Kolasheski and Gilbert entered Jabllawe's house and discussed the future of the area.

Not long ago, Tuwaitha was an al-Qaida hotbed. Local residents never dreamed that U.S. Soldiers would come into their village and sip chai with their local leaders.

"This place was pretty bad when we first arrived here," said Army Staff Sgt. Thomas Young, from Dayton, Ohio, a section sergeant in Company D. "Al-Qaida had killed several people in the area. They were running families out of their homes. We hit so many (improvised explosive devices) that the route into this area was still considered black 30 days after we cleared it, but that was before the Sons of Iraq checkpoints."

Establishing the citizens security group in the area was a huge step toward enabling residents to take their village back.

"Those checkpoints helped keep the roads secure after we cleared them, and it took off from there," Young said.

As the routes became safer, Kolasheski's battalion conducted several early-morning missions that forced most insurgents out of the area and allowed Tuwaitha's citizens to regroup and return to normalcy.

In January, the Sons of Iraq helped to uncover one of the largest caches the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team had seen during its current deployment. That cache is a distant memory now.

The day's meeting focused instead on getting Tuwaitha greater representation at regional government meetings and working with the local leadership council to help Tuwaitha's needs be presented in a unified voice.

"Do not look back," Kolasheski said. "You need to look forward ... Concentrate on the few important projects and project the united voice of the leaders here."

Jabllawe recognized the merit of Kolasheski's advice. "Projects can happen here now because of the safety," he said. "People are saying things are getting better, but we still have much to do."

Jabllawe engaged Kolasheski and Gilbert about getting civil projects brought to the area. The local pump station up the road is functioning, but could be improved. Water purification is still an issue.

Kolasheski noted that local projects people were seeing being initiated today were proposed a year ago. "Projects take time," he said. "Progress takes time."

He said he would talk with Iraqi government officials, but that Jabllawe and other local leaders must continue to work with the government to get the projects themselves.

Jabllawe admitted that many of his neighbors were not in favor of reaching out to the Americans.

"We were once very scared of you, ... but I am glad we reached out to you," he said. "All of our people now know that the soldiers at your bases are good people. You will always be remembered here as brothers."

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