August 14, 2007

One Block at a Time

Hatched by Sachi

Wesley Morgan, writing at the Fourth Rail, has a fascinating report on a different kind of ambush in Sadr City. Morgan is an embedded reporter accompanying American troops, led by Lt. Col Jeffery Peterson, along their patrol on the infamous Haifa Street, in the Sadr City slums of Baghdad, in the wake of a massive Shiite pilgrimage -- a "four million man march."

Col. Peterson and his men made a point of dismounting from their Strykers from time to time to chat with the locals. Morgan found the Iraqi people by and large friendly -- which is amazing, considering where they were: It was on this very Haifa Street in 2004 that a pair of election officials were brutally executed in broad daylight, during rush hour; the murders were photographed by an Iraqi stringer.

The "stringer" was later taken into custody as an al-Qaeda collaborator; the American who received the photos got a Pulitzer Prize.

Morgan writes:

The main difference [from Delhi in 2004], it occurred to me after a moment (besides the heat and the presence of a squad of formidably armed and armored US soldiers) was that the people seemed more welcoming: as Peterson walked down the sidewalk, greeting shop owners and residents with a well pronounced Salaam aleikum, I was struck by the people's demeanor.

Scrawny, white-haired, jagged-toothed men smiled up at the colonel from their seats, responding with a pleased-sounding Aleikum as-salaam, and middle-aged men did the same. The women, mostly wearing black robes that covered everything but their face, either greeted us as we walked by or simply smiled back at our greetings. Among younger men there was more of a split: some were enthusiastic, recognizing the colonel or his soldiers and greeting them in English, while others kept their expressions stonily cold, offering us no recognition whatsoever. Children of every age, both boys and girls, clustered around each of us, calling out "Hello mister!" or "Chocolata mister!" and grinning hopefully; many stuck out their hands for high-fives, fist-pounds, or handshakes.

A video report I viewed today at Matt Sanchez’s site confirms this impression (Sanchez is also embedded near Sadr City). Children “ambushed” Matt, clustering around him to have their picture taken, shouting out their own names after Matt named himself. Other children mobbed a female soldier who was giving away chewing-gum.

The scene reminded me of another that I know only from bedtime stories from my mother. It was not Iraq but Japan, 62 years ago today; and different children crowded around American Marines and soldiers, who drove not Strykers but Jeeps.

But it was the same story: Japan had just lost the war, during which they were told that American soldiers were so evil, they literally had horns growing from their foreheads. My mother was a small child, and she was terrified at the image. But when the American keito ("hairy foreigners") finally arrived, the children quickly realized that GIs were not demons... they were kind men whose hearts bled for the starving kids.

Seeing the desperate situation, GIs started to toss candy bars and chewing-gum from their own pockets; it was the only food they had with them. After a while, everywhere the soldiers went, they were inundated by friendly (and hungry!) children. Some, such as my mother’s older brother, quickly learned a few words in English: “Give me chocolate!” and “chewing-gum, please!” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

You may argue that the children in Iraq are not being friendly... they're just hungry, like their earlier "ancestors" in Japan. If so, we're feeding them (and not just chocolate this time). I remember hearing from an Iraq veteran that when patrolling an area, if the children gather around the soldiers or Marines without their mothers objecting, it was a good sign. When the children disappear as soon as they see the troops, it's a warning that something bad is about to happen.

Col. Peterson made a cogent observation to Wesley Morgan:

Another encouraging sign, and a surprising one, that the colonel remarked on and asked the jundis about was the scarcity of posters of Muqtada al-Sadr -- Badr-type posters of ageing, moderate Shiite clerics were everywhere, but we saw Sadr's puffy form only here and there. Even more strikingly, there was very little trash.

It was clear that this was one of the streets that 1-14, and the colonel himself, patrolled regularly. "You have to dismount, get out there on the ground, and talk to people," the colonel had told me earlier in the day – "There is no other way." On these few blocks, it could not have been more obvious that the squadron's soldiers were following this guidance, straight of classical counterinsurgency doctrine, and to good effect.

The part about the lack of trash is more important that we might at first realize; James Q. Wilson's "Broken Windows" theory applies even in Iraq. When Iraqis trouble to pick up the trash in their neighborhoods, especially in such a poor neighborhood as Sadr City, it means that they see themselves as part of that society, not outsiders looking in.

The most important determinant of whether a person is likely to commit violence is whether he sees himself as integrated into the community; typically, only those who see themselves as fundamentally different and apart from the community can callously butcher innocents. If one feels a part of the whole, mass violence is almost impossible.

Morgan’s report is not entirely positive; it's not all Pollyannas and cream. Despite the eagerness of the Iraqi security troops to safeguard the Pilgrims’ march, Morgan is not confident that they have the capability or the equipment to back-up the will.

But taken all in all, this is a good report. We must pacify Baghdad and Iraq one street, one block at the time. Haifa street is not just any old road; it has a dark and vengeful history and mythology all its own. But we will pacify it in the end, just like every other street: one block at a time.

Hatched by Sachi on this day, August 14, 2007, at the time of 11:52 PM

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The following hissed in response by: BigLeeH

Michael Totten has a similar piece out today (Balance of Terror). He is embedded with a different group nearby and his observations are similar. The group Totten is with seem to have good connections with the GSA because they hand out Girl Scout Cookies instead of candy.

Totten takes a bit more jaundiced view of the "peace" in Sadr City -- he gives some sense of the degree to which the Mahdi Army has infiltrated the local security forces, Iraqi Army and police, and are just biding their time for now waiting to make trouble later. But Totten too comes up hopeful in the end on balance. The longer al Sadr waits before "activating" his moles within the Iraqi security forces the more theoretical becomes his ability to do so. Over time people tend to become what they pretend to be and Moqtada al Sadr’s moles are likely to be starting to forget exactly why they thought they owed allegiance to a short fat guy in the pockets of the Iranians when they are nicely in control of big parts of Iraq now without him.

The above hissed in response by: BigLeeH [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 15, 2007 10:25 AM

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