The American flag was barely discernible. But to US Army Lt. Col. Beau Balcavage, the mere depiction of it on a stairway tile in a Shiite mosque here in Babil Province meant that worshippers committed an act of anti-Americanism every time they stepped foot on the faded Stars and Stripes.
The colonel wanted it gone. But getting the flag removed meant negotiating with local leaders aligned with militias – groups that possibly have American blood on their hands. Not long ago, that type of a meeting was unheard of.
But while Colonel Balcavage, commander of the 1st Battalion of the 501st Infantry Regiment, saw that floor tile as an affront to American efforts here that could only worsen US-Iraqi relations, his effort is part of the broader military plan to begin working with Iraq's sectarian militias.
If the US is successful in attempts at convincing militia groups that political reconciliation, and not violence, between Shiites and Sunnis is the way forward, military officials hope those small victories will help foster political progress at higher levels.
Reconciliation between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds remains one of the biggest challenges in Iraq, and this level of political dialogue has begun to characterize the job facing the American military, say commanders here. Still, these low-level talks come with risks. Officials say it's a question of who is honest and who isn't, even if they don't always know what motivates them to act.
In a meeting of Iraqi political leaders, sheikhs, and others here last month, Balcavage demanded that the flag be removed: It is an insult to the Americans who have died trying to help Iraq, he said. As part of the deal to remove it, he offered reconstruction money and other aid for Musayib, a city south of Baghdad that is a mix of Sunni and Shiite where the security situation has seen improvement.
"I've left the blood of more soldiers than I care to mention ... on this soil, so it's important to me that this is not something that I pass on to the next commander," he said.
But the district council member, Theban Thamer, who the US suspects is tied to local militias, was reluctant to move too quickly to support the US for fear of losing credibility. "I need more time," he said.
Soon after the meeting, Mr. Thamer and another official apparently began dumping acid on the flag to remove it, but this was done at night and out of public view. Balcavage said later it's not just about the flag, but the courage of officials to publicly back US interests.
Military officials have begun to engage with other groups, such as the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. American troops are confronting them head-on in battle, as well. On Sunday, the military said it killed 49 militants in Sadr City, a Shiite enclave in Baghdad.
"We are starting to reach out a bit more to the Shiite, and it's also about them reaching out to us," US Army Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commanding general, Multi-National Corps-Iraq, said earlier this month in Washington.
General Odierno said "three, separate meetings" have taken place with militia leaders in Sadr City. "It's a beginning – low-level meetings – but it's the first time we've had these meetings with people in Sadr City, so I'm encouraged by that."
Also, top US commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, told Congress in September that, "We are not going to kill our way out of all these problems in Iraq.... It's not easy sitting across the table, let's say, or drinking tea with someone whose tribal members may have shot at our forces or in fact drawn the blood – killed our forces."
There are limits to who the US will talk to. "We're going to draw the line," says Brig. Gen. Jim Huggins, a deputy commander within the 3rd Infantry Division, which oversees Balcavage's area of operations. "If we know this guy is dealing with [improvised explosive devises] or killing soldiers, we don't overlook that – there is a limit we will go to."
Balcavage noted that his dialogue with Thamer, the council member, and others has helped encourage the Shiite leader to engage with Sunni leaders within this mixed region, which the US military calls "the fault line" of sectarianism.
As for the flag, it's no more. Exactly how or why is still unknown. But Army Col. Michael X. Garrett, the brigade commander who oversees the broader area of Babil Province, speaking to reporters from Iraq on Monday, said even if it was removed under the cover of darkness, it doesn't matter. "I don't know if it's important that he makes a political statement, because the statement has already been made in the eyes of the population and really in the eyes of the coalition forces in terms of the fact that the flag is gone."