Help us take out the trash, and other Iraqi requests
BAGHDAD — The Amiriyah district of western Baghdad has long been a tough neighborhood for American troops and the Iraqis willing to work with them.
But when Capt. Stuart West of the 256th Brigade Combat Team arrives for the weekly neighborhood council meeting, it's evident just how much the council depends on US forces as the midwives to Iraq's budding democracy.
The curtains are drawn in the barren room. Humvees parked outside form a protective perimeter on the street but the councilors are all smiles, greeting the US Army soldiers like old friends.
The rips of Velcro as the Americans remove bulletproof vests mark the start of the gathering. The agenda: a smorgasbord of local issues, from security concerns to trash collection. Spurred on by rounds of cardamom coffee and sweet tea, conversation veers from prickly goading to deep-belly laughter.
Captain West starts. "Any concerns for security this week?"
It quickly becomes clear the men would rather discuss garbage. "We can't control it," says council head Ayad Jabor Ayad. "We need more trucks."
"Trucks are very difficult to come by," responds West, a Pineville, La., native. "It's a very low possibility that I can provide trucks."
Sometimes it takes a moment for the Iraqis and Americans to understand one another. But when they do, the result shows just how much some local councils, now two years after they were created, still rely on direct US support to solve problems.
In the Americans, the Iraqis hope to find an instant solution to their trash troubles. Master Sgt. Cecil Rotenberry, a civil affairs officer from Rome, N.Y., makes a call to get the number for the "Iraqi Director General of Trash."
As he does so, the Iraqis joke at the power play, ascribing each other new titles like "President Ayad" and "Sheikh West."
"This is also a security problem," says Saadi Mouklef, the council member tasked with the trash issue.
"You mean, if someone throws trash on the ground, you want me to shoot him?" asks West, with some incredulity.
Mr. Ayad moves to the next agenda item. He turns to Lt. Col. Asad Ahmed from the Iraqi police, who says that security in Amiriyah is "very bad."
"We need more police patrols, and another building for them," says Colonel Ahmed. "I can't control everything. I can control robbery and thefts, but there are so many outsiders, we need more police."
"I have a platoon in Amiriyah, patrolling 16 to 20 hours a day," replies West.
"We need checkpoints on the road, to check the cars," says Adel Dahan, a council member.
"We don't keep stationary for a long time, because of [car bombs]," explains West.
"How can you control this area?" asks Mr. Dahan.
"Can I get some Iraqi police?" asks West.
And, with that, the deal is struck.
An hour before the meeting, the councilors say, someone was killed in the neighborhood just down the street from where they were meeting. There is a brief huddle around a map on the wall as West promised to increase patrols.
Security should soon be beefed up in the neighborhood, as Iraqi Army forces prepare to work in Amiriyah. West's units will usher them in, but he first wants to be sure that the Iraqi police and US Army can communicate. Last week, he tells the group, a firefight between the army and Iraqi police erupted after a case of mistaken identity.
Ayad moves the meeting along. He hands a letter to West, a claim for damages to a local high school incurred in mid-May. The list includes a destroyed gate, door damage, and the cost of two confiscated assault rifles.
"That's the same high school, I think, where they were shooting off the roof at us," says West.
"Yes, that is where the insurgents were hiding, and shooting at you," says Ayad. "We don't know who."
"I wish I knew, because if I found [the shooter], I'd kill him," says West.
"It's a school," interjects Dahan.
"I know, but if we are shot at, I have to capture or kill him," West replies. "There was no one there with a weapons [permit], and we found the AKs, a pistol, and nine magazines."
"You get one weapon and one magazine," lectures West. "We had just been shot at 30 minutes earlier; [if] we find a weapon, we're going to take it. Also, the weapons were hidden ... they were not just sitting out in a corner."
"But [the guard] worked for the ministry of education," protests Dahan.
"They are not looking if the guy is good or bad, just that the school is damaged," says councilman Akram Najjar.
"My first priority, if I'm getting shot at, is my men ... more than a broken door or lock," retorts West. "After the shooting, we can deal with what is broken. My 200 men are like my children."
"You must do the good thing for the school," insists Mr. Najjar, shaking his grey head of hair.
Council head Ayad holds up the phone. He's just called the school principal, who says he was injured.
"Tell him," says West, exasperated, "we will submit the claims form. We'll work on getting this fixed; it would look good for the council."
"Sheikh Adel!" says Dahan, with a grin.
"Sheikh West!" says Najjar, eliciting a further round of laughs.
A women pokes her head into the meeting, and from beneath a black head shawl, expresses appreciation for the US presence.
Next on the agenda: the week before, Bradley fighting vehicles patrolled through a neighborhood, but their height tore down numerous wires that connected houses to local generators. A pipe was crushed by the tracks of the Bradley.
"If we knew you were coming, we could have raised the wires," says Dahan, in an even tone, before West turns the tables, tongue-in-cheek.
"Let me know next time they are going to attack with [rocket-propelled grenades]."
Security comes up again. Council members want to know how they can be safe, with such strict rules - and being accused by their neighbors or working with the Americans.
"Why do you carry a gun?" asks Ayad, rhetorically.
"Because I am a soldier," replies West.
"We are soldiers, too, but without guns!" says Najjar. "How can I protect myself?"
"With one AK [assault rifle] in the house," answers West.
"And walking on the streets?" pleads Najjar.
West shrugs, recognizing the dilemma. Instead, the council will have to use their cell phones as weapons to call for help. West hands out a small stack of cards with emergency numbers.
Dahan playfully takes a few, then pretends that he has been dealt a poker hand. Pulling one card out, he holds it up: "Joker!"