Efforts to make progress tangible to Iraqis
US soldiers say face-to-face interactions are improving living standards - as well as building trust.
BAGHDAD — There is no such thing as a routine ride through Baghdad for the soldiers of the US Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
Every time they roll through the city in their Humvees, they view it as another opportunity to prove to the Iraqis that they are here to help them.
It is an attitude and outlook set from the top by Lt. Col. Joel Armstrong, commander of the regiment's 2nd Squadron, which is conducting operations out of Thawra, a heavily Shiite and long-ignored neighborhood in Baghdad. And it seems to be paying dividends as Iraqis and American soldiers struggle to overcome the disruptions of the war, the replacement of the Baath Party power structure, and the rebuilding of an infrastructure held together for years with chewing gum and baling wire.
"It is going slower than I hoped, but good things are happening every day," says Colonel Armstrong.
• Army officials are developing a working relationship with key local Shiite Muslim religious leaders to coordinate security and humanitarian and redevelopment efforts in Thawra.
• Initial efforts are under way to encourage participation in an interim municipal council in Thawra to help decide how best to address problems and set development priorities.
• The US government is underwriting a program to hire as many as 16,000 people in Thawra to clear trash and garbage from the streets. Each will be paid about $2.50 a day, a significant wage for many Iraqis.
• The Army is preparing to use military graders to smooth out local soccer fields, an improvement bound to please local teens.
• Local and military officials are working to repair the sewer system, which regularly overflows into streets.
• Schools have reopened throughout the area, and attendance rates are rising. US forces have helped channel supplies to the facilities and dispose of any weapons found in or near the schools.
Armstrong says one of his biggest problems is convincing relief and other aid officials that this area of eastern Baghdad is safe enough for them to operate in. "There is a perception that this place is more dangerous than it now is," he told his officers in a recent meeting.
He says if necessary, he will "drag" relief workers into the area to force them to acknowledge it is now secure enough.
Troops with the 2nd Squadron have been patrolling here for three weeks, and improvements are visible. The streets are cleaner. Almost all shops are now open. And although there is still occasional gunfire, it is nothing like the almost constant shooting that was heard when the Army took over this area from the Marines last month.
One key to this success, soldiers say, is a street-cop approach to patrolling, and a commanding officer who encourages initiative and innovation.
They say there is one other key ingredient: The 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment is a unit of Army scouts. Unlike infantry forces that directly engage the enemy through massive force and firepower, scouts must be quick and agile enough to deal with unexpected events. It is more than just a job title, soldiers say.
"It is a frame of mind that you have as a scout," says Sgt. Maj. Charles Waters. "If it can be done, it will get done."
Capt. Stacey Corn agrees. "Some soldiers see boundaries. Scouts don't have any boundaries."
A human element also pervades the squadron's operations. "The guys are treating the Iraqis with dignity and respect, and I just think that makes a big difference," says Armstrong.
This is not to suggest that Iraqis have stopped complaining about the lack of electricity, water, jobs, and security. But those problems do not appear to be irreversibly undermining the credibility of US soldiers and the US mission - at least not yet, analysts say.
Still, many Iraqis say they don't understand how the same nation that swept Saddam Hussein from power in 21 days lacks the ability to instantly restore Iraq to prewar levels of municipal services.
Armstrong has a common response to this frequent question. "I tell them the system was not well designed and was much worse than we expected," he says.
"So we will need some time so that when we [rebuild the electrical system], we do it the right way," Armstrong says. "So be patient, and it will pay off."
Tasked with patrolling much of eastern Baghdad, including some of the city's poorest and roughest neighborhoods, the soldiers and officers of the 2nd Squadron have been forced into a wide variety of roles far removed from the warfare they came trained to perform.
Now they are bank examiners, sewer repairmen, labor negotiators, judges, carpenters, doctors, janitors, and a host of other trades and professions. In the process, they appear to be earning the trust and respect of ordinary Iraqis.
But sometimes, the job involves ruffling a few feathers.
When military officials heard reports that young men sent by a local religious leader to protect a mental hospital were allowing unauthorized vehicles to use the hospital's gasoline supplies, they briskly moved into the compound and thanked the armed men for their service.
Sayed Ashraf al-Hassani, the leader of the young men, protested. He said they had maintained security for 25 days and had helped in hospital operations.
"The commander of coalition forces appreciates your help," Captain Corn told Mr. Hassani. The captain said that Hassani and his men were now free to assist others elsewhere in Baghdad.
As Corn spoke, more than 20 heavily armed US soldiers took up positions. The men from the mosque left peacefully with their AK-47 rifles, but only after Corn confiscated an Russian RPK machine gun. Corn says such a weapon is unnecessary for peacekeeping.
US forces carry similar and even heavier firepower, but it wasn't a point that Hassani cared to debate.