News: Volunteers join Coalition in the fight against al-Qaida in northwest Baghdad
Story by Spc. Leith Edgar
By Spc. L.B. Edgar,
7th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
BAGHDAD – Initially, it was hard to distinguish friend from foe when they met. The rag-tag Iraqis who were armed with well-worn AK-47s, RPKs, PKCs and even a few Dragonoffs – all weapons commonly used against coalition forces. They traveled with weapons hanging out the windows of unarmored vehicles, while a "gunner" lay on the vehicle's roof as security.
This was not the scene the Soldiers of 1st Platoon, Company E, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, anticipated when they met the volunteers, a group of western Baghdad residents irritated with the status quo in their Abu Ghraib neighborhoods.
They had resolved to no longer endure the endless torture, beheadings and extortion, which had become all too common. These men joined forces to rid their communities, once and for all, of a plague of foreign fighters. They are willing to go to any length to defeat their sworn enemy, al-Qaida, said Spc. Angelo Moreno, 24, Bradley gunner with Company E.
"They wanted al-Qaida out of their neighborhoods. Al-Qaida had been disrupting their neighborhoods and their way of living. They got tired of it and decided to take some action and help us out to take care of their families and their neighborhoods," explained the Denver native.
Forcing al-Qaida out of Khandari, Al Haswa and Al Hamadania neighborhoods, within Abu Ghraib, is what the volunteers want to accomplish, said Alawi Chiad Manaweer, a volunteer from the Al Janabi tribe.
"Before we felt scared from them (al-Qaida members) because we don't have weapons like them. But now something different happened," said Manaweer through a translator. "There are two or three guys in a neighborhood who are bad. They set up IEDs (improvised explosive devices) for you (coalition forces). Then you're going to imagine that everyone in this neighborhood is bad and (the residents) are terrorists. These al-Qaida members are very bad. They are like poison for (the) Iraqi society."
Manaweer and his Al Janabi tribe are not alone in tiring of the violence. Tribesmen of the Al Abidi, Al Chwirtan, Al Hamdani and Al Zawbaai tribes all have members serving as volunteers in Abu Ghraib neighborhoods to battle al-Qaida operatives.
For many of the volunteers, al-Qaida in Iraq was not always the enemy. In fact, some tribe members were at one time supporting the terrorist organization either by turning a blind eye, supplying food and resources or possibly carrying out attacks, said Capt. Lawrence Obst, 28, the commander of Co. E.
"The bulk of them have actively or passively supported al-Qaida in the past. As they realized what al-Qaida meant to do in Iraq, how they planned to rule, the fact they set up their own shadow government – a lot of these guys didn't know what they were getting into when they started dealing with al-Qaida," said the native of Summit, N.J.
However, now having had a change of heart, volunteers are lining up to join with the coalition against the extremists.
Part of the reason for the "about face" are the empty promises al-Qaida in Iraq made to local supporters, said 1st Lt. Steve Klocko, 23, the platoon leader of Co. E's 1st Platoon.
"They were promised numerous things by al-Qaida and al-Qaida never came through, so they want to fight back and make the area safe for their families," explained the Pittsburgh native.
This is not the first time residents have turned on al-Qaida in Iraq. In fact, it is becoming the trend, Obst said.
"The more moderate Sunnis have basically cut ties with al-Qaida and al-Qaida is a 'with us or you're against us, organization;' so, as soon as you cut ties with them that pretty much seals the deal. If you're not with them, you're at war with them," Obst said.
Consequently, the Soldiers forgive past transgressions and focus on Iraq's future.
"We don't ever ask them if they were insurgents. We stay away from that question. That way we can develop a friendship with them and show them that we are actually going to work with them and can trust them," Obst said. "That way, in the long run, it should help us and make this place more secure."
According to Manaweer, the group of volunteers, who are not officially approved or sanctioned by the Ministry of Interior as a volunteer police force, come to fight al-Qaida from a wide array of occupations or were unemployed before volunteering.
Yet, the Soldiers who work with the unofficial volunteer policemen, who were deputized by members of the Iraqi government, know better. The sudden decrease in violence is most telling, said Staff Sgt. Steven Creel, 34, a squad leader with 1st Platoon.
"We have not had any sniper fire since we started working with these guys. The IEDs on Route (Michigan, which is nearby) mysteriously disappeared," the Orlando, Fla., native said.
Turning al-Qaida's would-be supporters into their enemies was no small task. In order to accomplish this feat, Soldiers drew on Iraq's tribal system, which has been a timeless source of power. By garnering support from local tribal leaders, Soldiers allied themselves with the people of the Abu Ghraib area, Obst said.
One side effect of an improved relationship with the tribes was the ability to have local disputes peacefully settled between tribal leaders. According to Obst, the Iraqi tribal system has mechanisms to peacefully resolve disputes and working through the systems in place behooves the coalition, as well as Iraqis.
Though a tribal council does not always produce the desired effect, it is worth a try, Obst said.
"In most cases there is a fair outcome as opposed to the western belief that someone is getting his hand chopped off," he said.
More threatening to peace in Abu Ghraib than tribal disputes or sectarian violence is the steady stream of foreign fighters into Baghdad that threatens Iraq's fledgling government and coalition forces, as well as the people of Iraq, said Manaweer.
"They keep the Iraqi people to not be a good people, to not be a free people by making VBIEDs (vehicle-borne explosive devices) and placing IEDs," he said.
Abu Ghraib is an access point for foreign fighters heading into Baghdad. Co. E is trying to block access and deny safe haven to such undesirable individuals, said Klocko.
The presence of Soldiers in neighborhoods is to have a stabilizing effect on the population (since it) is one of the gateways into Baghdad. So, by blocking and disrupting al-Qaida here, we have an impact across the division," Obst said.
Though most of the leadership is foreign, many of the foot soldiers are local. Desperate Iraqis, who feel caught "between a rock and a hard place" end up working for al-Qaida to make end's meet, he said.
According to Manaweer, the Iraqi people are a good people who are suffering in the midst of a battlefield.
"Most of the violence comes from outside Iraq," he said.
Though Sunnis outnumber the Shia in this northwestern portion of the Iraqi capital, violence between the sects is not the problem residents face. In some cases Sunnis marry Shia in Abu Ghraib. The volunteers are almost perfectly representative of the area with 70 percent Sunni and 30 percent Shia, Obst estimated.
"The war is against al-Qaida, at least in this area," he said.
Manaweer concurred and said the violence is not homegrown; it is imported.
"The problem is not between Sunni and Shia," he said. "The problem is coming from outside Iraq. If you control the border between Iraq and Iran and all the other countries around Iraq - by this way you're going to find there is not a problem between Sunni and Shia anymore."
With Operation Fardh Al-Qanoon, commonly referred to as the Baghdad Security Plan, well under way, coalition forces and their Iraqi partners are occupying many sections of Baghdad having cleared them in the preceding months. Now the objective is to hold the cleared areas by occupying them with Soldiers and Iraqi security forces. Joint Security Station Luzon is one of many efforts underway in Iraq's embattled capital, Klocko said.
JSS Luzon, which was until recently the abandoned Sheik Gari Railway Station in the Khandari neighborhood of Abu Ghraib, is under construction and houses Co. E and a fluctuating number of volunteer policmen, he said.
Once complete, JSS Luzon is slated to accommodate approximately 40 to 50 Soldiers and 100 to 200 official Iraqi police at any given time. The IPs will be tasked with security while the Soldiers' will guide them and act as a quick reaction force. Once the IPs are sufficiently capable of securing the area, 200 to 300 IPs will call the JSS home and Soldiers will step back, Obst said.
The goal is for JSS Luzon to mirror some of the success enjoyed at the nearby
Nasser Wa Salem IP station where volunteer policemen provided intelligence to Iraqi army soldiers of 3rd Battalion, 4th Brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division, which led to the killing and injury of two al-Qaida members. Since the volunteer policemen began working with the Iraqi army, there has been a significant decrease in attacks, Obst said.
Although the volunteer policemen working out of JSS Luzon are not officially sanctioned, the Ministry of Interior is looking to hire 1,300 full-time Iraqi police in the area.
So far, there is no shortage of applicants with more than 5,000 Iraqis hoping to become IPs, Obst said. He said the surge of Soldiers into Baghdad has sent a wake-up call to Iraqis that coalition forces will not be here forever.
"If you're going to help us out," he said, "you need to help us now."
Although it's still early, the success stories of JSS Luzon are encouraging signs of progress to the Soldiers who are fortifying the structure one sandbag at a time.
"What's going on here is locals are rising up to say. 'We don't want al-Qaida here and we want peace,'" Obst said. "It definitely has the potential to help us create a secure Iraq."
The area surrounding the JSS has seen the most dramatic changes.
"Just a few months ago, you couldn't drive down that road without definitely getting hit by an IED," Klocko said. "The reason we are moving out here is so that we can develop a better rapport with the volunteers, IPs and also the people within the area."
Klocko said he and his Soldiers like what they're seeing from the volunteer policemen, as well.
"The volunteers are extremely motivated and willing to work. They refer to themselves now as soldiers and they won't do anything without permission from their chain of command," he said. "When you're at home you don't really hear about the JSSs or these outposts like this, where you work hand-in-hand with the IPs or the local nationals."
Working hand-in-hand is one of the benefits of JSS Luzon.
"It helps us to know one another. In order for them to really trust us, we've got to be able to work with them. They stay here so we get to interact with them a lot. They get to know we're not just foreign Soldiers; we're actually people just like them trying to do our job and go home," Moreno said.
In fact, Soldiers like Moreno find quite a bit of common ground with the volunteers who are stepping up to do their part in securing Baghdad.
"They want the same thing as we do. They just want to be able to go home with their wife and kids. They want to live a normal life without someone threatening them and their way of life," he said. "It's the same thing back home. You just want a normal neighborhood where you watch your kids grow up and have some peace."