BY LILY GORDON - email@example.com
The soldiers of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division have passed the 90-day mark of their yearlong deployment to Iraq.
The brigade is no longer the leading military unit as it was in the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom. That role now belongs to their Iraqi counterparts, the men American forces are tasked with turning into warriors. Training an army and empowering a nation to stand on its own is a tremendous challenge, according to 3rd Brigade Commander Col. Peter Jones, but he said his unit is up to the task.
Speaking from Forward Operating Base Kalsu in Babil Province, Iraq, on Jan. 22, Jones said his soldiers are currently spread across five provinces and working every day with Iraqi Security Forces to identify and fix problems in each region.
‘Nothing is ever easy ... in Iraq’
The brigade’s mission hasn’t changed since it received its marching orders last summer. American forces are there to advise and assist the Iraqi military and police as these entities transition into a leadership role. With all U.S. combat troops scheduled to pull out of Iraq by Aug. 31, it’s imperative that the country’s military and police prepare in advance to operate without an American safety net, Jones said.
“Nothing is ever easy or quick in Iraq, whether you’re dealing with the U.S. military or the U.S. government or now the Iraqi military or the Iraqi government,” Jones said. “So we’re learning tactical patience and we’re helping the Iraqis solve their problems and at the same time ensuring that there’s a safe and secure environment for the upcoming religious holiday, which is called Arbeen.”
With the second national election coming up in early March, American soldiers and Iraqi trainees are feeling the pressure to provide sufficient security for this potentially volatile event. Patrol operations and daily tactical training coupled with security briefs and classroom work are slowly turning inexperienced recruits into capable soldiers and leaders.
“Iraq is still a dangerous place,” Jones said. “We already lost one soldier to sniper fire. Soldiers do still encounter IEDs (improvised explosive devices). The security environment has definitely improved. Now the question is ensuring that the atmosphere — and I call it the perception of security in the eyes of the Iraqis — has improved to make them interested in going through what will really be the third election process.”
Then and now
Each time the brigade deploys to Iraq, it’s received with less caution and more optimism by the native people, Jones said. Children welcome soldiers to their neighborhood. Rarely do American troops go out on patrol without bringing bags of candy to hand out to boys and girls, and impromptu games of street soccer are not uncommon.
During the unit’s previous three deployments to Iraq, there was an ever-present, palpable feeling of mutual distrust that’s less apparent this time around, Jones said. For example, roadways are now shared between soldier convoys and civilian motorists.
“So you have folks drive by and wave whereas before we wanted to keep them away from us because of what we thought was the VB/IED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) threat back then and there is not one now,” Jones said. “So we’ve become more partners and enablers in their mission — I say their mission being the Iraqi Security Forces’ mission of protecting the population versus us being in the lead.”
The local leadership is also stepping up, with higher-ranking officials accepting more responsibility than ever before, Jones said.
It’s been four years since Staff Lt. Gen. Othnan took control of the 8th Iraq Army Division. Over the years, the colonel said he’s seen his Iraqi counterpart grow as a leader.
“And when I go see him he tells me right up front what he needs just like a U.S. general would tell me what he needs and he understands our capabilities and he understands the capabilities of his soldiers and how he as the leader in charge of providing security needs our assistance to make it happen,” Jones said. “So he knows he’s the one in charge and he is the one not only in charge, but more importantly, he is the one responsible.”
On Jan. 22, a unit of Iraqi soldiers and police conducted 18 operations in one night, Jones said. During those operations they made three arrests and detected three IEDs. They also suffered five casualties. One police officer was killed and four others were wounded.
“So they are truly out in front taking responsibility for protecting the population,” Jones said. “They look to us for key things like intelligence, explosive ordinance protection, aviation in terms of what we call air weapons teams and the ability to move around the battle site. And then they also look to us as a back-up in terms of medical and also our combat fighting capabilities. They’re out there every night without us doing what they believe needs to be done and also paying a price to secure their people.”
Signs of progress are everywhere, the colonel said. Humanitarian missions are driving provincial reconstruction and once embattled provinces are beginning to shake their violent pasts. Jones recalled a day in 2004 when he conducted a walkabout of an area he was responsible for in north Babil. It was a dangerous and desolate place, one where American troops could not go without getting hit by an IED or being subjected to threats and taunts. “It just had this sense of stagnation,” Jones said.
While on his patrol in 2004, Jones visited a police station that had been blown up four times in six years. The station has since been rebuilt and it is currently staffed with Iraqi police and Army officials, Jones said. It is on a street that boasts a market once deemed unsafe for American soldiers. Now, it is a bustling hub of business and commerce.
“Sure enough, I walk down the street, kids are playing, kicking soccer balls, I’m kicking soccer balls back,” Jones said. “I go up to a guy that may have been setting IEDs against me back in ’04, but he now has a fruit shop and he’s trying to figure out a way to expand his business to take care of his family. And he is looking toward to the future instead of looking to the past.”