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Friday, January 02, 2004 - Page updated at 07:23 A.M.
Creating order from chaos is half the battle in Iraq
Editor's note: Reporter Hal Bernton and photographer Thomas James Hurst are spending a month in Iraq, reporting on the U.S. military campaign as well as the lives of Iraqi civilians. Today's dispatch is from Ad Dujayl, a town of about 30,000 north of Baghdad.
By Hal Bernton
They are here for fuel a precious commodity that in this oil-rich nation remains in short supply. The state-rationed kerosene and diesel are needed to heat homes, cook and light living-room lamps.
Everyone here is cold and impatient, having waited for hours, some overnight. The jostling for position and the yelling erupt as the station starts dispensing the cheap fuel. A few wild punches are thrown.
Ten soldiers of the Fort Lewis-based Bravo Company, part of the Washington Army National Guard, move into the crowd. Their job is to create order out of this maelstrom, and they are demanding a single-file line.
But the fear of going without is too strong, and the crowd surges wildly toward the pumps. The soldiers, trying to keep their humor, move them back, sometimes with jokes, sometimes with a few choice curse words or a stern tap on the shoulder. By midafternoon, some semblance of order is forged the line has held.
"This is gonna work," declares 1st Sgt. Bill Rasche. "This is gonna be awesome."
Bravo Company, with just over 100 soldiers, is part of the 14th Engineering Battalion. They are trained for combat duties such as seizing and then safely exploding ordnance, a job that has become almost routine since they arrived in Iraq in April. They also survived a stoning from a hostile crowd in Samara as they knocked down a giant statute of Saddam Hussein.
Now operating from a small base outside of Ad Dujayl, they patrol the highways for explosives, search houses for weapons and occasionally exchange gunfire with insurgents. But in the six months since arriving here, their job also has required a great deal of diplomacy as they join in the effort to form a new political framework for the local government and rebuild the town's security.
They have learned the local police often are ineffective the crush at the fuel depot the latest example.
At a meeting earlier this week, town officials deemed the fuel station a major trouble spot marked by mobs, favoritism and occasional riots.
They asked the U.S. Army for help.
This kind of cooperative relationship is hard to find in central Iraq, the heartland of Sunni Muslims, traditionally considered Saddam Hussein's strongest supporters. Pockets of Sunni resistance can be found just outside town. A few weeks ago, a drive-by shooting killed an American contractor. His shattered white pickup truck still sits on the shoulder of the highway.
But Ad Dujayl, unlike most of central Iraq, consists largely of Shiite Muslims, who were persecuted by Iraq's deposed dictator. In 1982, Shiite Muslims here launched a bold assassination attempt against Saddam Hussein, blasting at his convoy with small-arms fire as it drove along a local boulevard.
Saddam escaped and wrought swift retribution, rounding up hundreds of men in town, burning farm fields and withholding development money.
U.S. soldiers in the middle
Today, Ad Dujayl is full of decaying brick and stucco buildings that reflect decades of neglect. And though shops offer fruits, vegetables and savory chickens, inflation in the postwar era has put such staples out of reach for many people.
Some here are putting their faith in the American occupation.
"I prefer that the Americans stay here for many years so that democracy can stand up and be built stronger," said an Ad Dujayl police official who, fearing death threats, asked not to be named. Speaking in clear English, the former Iraqi military officer said, "If Americans leave soon, Iraq will be many pieces."
But with the fuel shortages, worse in recent months, some Shiites have soured on the American occupation.
After hours spent amid the mud and oily stench at the fuel station, Khansaa Mohammed, a 55-year-old Shiite woman cloaked in a traditional black robe, triumphantly emerged carrying a large can of kerosene.
"You came here to help us. Where is the coalition help?" she said. "Under Saddam, the situation was better."
O'Donnell, the company commander, tries to keep his cool, even as he surveys the mob at the fuel station. He's soft-spoken, a blond guardsman who lives in Tacoma, where he works as a recruiter. He has three young kids and an old house he's remodeling.
While O'Donnell is a reserve of calm, Rasche, the first sergeant, is known for his humor as well as his temper. A tall, red-haired pipefitter from Lacey, Rasche has two children and a wife. His wife is sick with cancer, but he says he never thought of trying to get out of Iraq duty. And his wife insisted he go.
A Gulf War veteran on his second tour of duty in Iraq, Rasche is eager to get home to his family. He dreams of taking his 11-year-old boy to a Mariners game. Meantime, he works with O'Donnell to organize the daily mission.
At a company planning meeting, as the men gather around a table in a plywood conference room, Rasche hears too many excuses and quickly asserts himself: "I'm the first sergeant. Not some green sergeant. And when I tell you something, you will stick to it. Do you understand me? I don't care about a platoon being down. These soldiers have busted their asses since they got here, and they're going to bust them till they get home. That's the way it's going to be. This is war. It's serious business."
A new militia
Because the local police are unreliable, Bravo Company is helping train the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, or ICDC. This is a kind of American-made militia, and the recruits look like the new town toughs, riding around in the back of pickups with AK-47 machine guns slung over their shoulders.
Monday afternoon was graduation day, and the new recruits gathered inside a plywood hall at a nearby base. Dressed in new khaki uniforms topped with black baseball caps, they stomped a booted salute as they headed to the front of the room to pick up a diploma.
"In you, I see the future of a new Iraq, a future where the Iraqi people can have freedom and security side by side," said Lt. Col. Laura Loftus, 39, who commands the 4th Engineering Battalion of Fort Collins, Colo.
Loftus also has led an Army effort to reshape the local government. Under Saddam, power was centralized in Baghdad. But the Army has appointed a new city council in Ad Dujayl that includes local chiefs, business people and two women, who head a clinic and school.
Most of the council members were used to the old system. And early on, they fumbled trying to figure out what the council should do. Meetings often degenerated into yelling matches.
Time and again, Loftus, in her military uniform, would assert her authority in this roomful of Iraqi men and demand order. When the first mayor, a holdover from the old regime, appeared to be taking advantage of his position, Loftus fired him and helped pick a new mayor.
"I really believe that this is the way to make progress here," she said. "If we engage and work with these people, that's the way to success."
Tuesday, council members entered into polite if spirited discussion as they sipped from cups of smoky, sugared tea.
In preparation for a January election, the new mayor read the text of a city charter. It was similar to one you might find in small-town America, except that it allowed the coalition government to unseat any candidate deemed too hostile to the U.S. occupation.
As the council debated the charter, a convoy full of freshly minted cash heavily guarded by contract employees recruited from the Fiji Islands by an English firm, Global Security pulled up at the bank next door.
Workers quickly hauled sacks of new postwar dinars into the bank and hauled out sacks of the old Iraqi currency, which featured Saddam.
Unlike a bank currency exchange in Samara early last month, which was the scene of an ambush and firefight between U.S. soldiers and insurgents, this transfer went off without a hitch. A long line of Iraqis quickly formed to exchange old currency for new bills.
New Year's Eve, insurgents attacked a Bravo Company patrol outside town with rocket-propelled grenades. No one was injured. Later, a mortar landed near the base and insurgents apparently fired, with no apparent damage.
Well past midnight, several people tried to break into the Ad Dujayl clinic, perhaps to aid someone wounded in an earlier firefight. Challenged by police and the Civil Defense recruits, they responded with automatic weapons. That brought an Army platoon into town, and arrests were made.
All in all, an uneasy beginning to the new year.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com
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