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Secret cause of sectarian violence in Iraq

Posted By -NO AUTHOR- On 09/07/2007 @ 1:00 am In Front Page | Comments Disabled



Matt Sanchez

Editor’s note: With Gen. David Petraeus’ eagerly awaited “surge” report just around the corner, it’s a crucial moment for America’s Iraq policy, But many believe that policy is being influenced too much by public sentiment, which in turn is shaped by the reporting of a news media opposed to the war.

Reporter Matt Sanchez, currently embedded in Iraq with the 1st Squadron 4th Cavalry out of Fort Riley, Kan. – the 1-4 Cav – has been providing WND readers with a glimpse into the Iraq war most Americans have never heard.

In this, his third dispatch from the front lines, Sanchez reports from Dora, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baghdad.

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The 1st Brigade 4th Cavalry stands guard 24 hours a day, seven days a week – including during the afternoon when many Iraqi forces take a break (Courtesy Matt Sanchez)

Dora, Doura, Dorah? More often than not, the translation to English from Arabic can lead to some confusion and misunderstanding. Confusion is not safe, and a misunderstanding can be downright deadly. For the American military, the language barrier is enormous, because interpreters only bridge so much of the gap between expression and comprehension. Any soldier will tell you, communication is more than words strung together in sentences. Communication is not only what a person says, but how he means it.

The job of Staff Sgt. William Highsmith of “Charlie Troop” is all about understanding. The theory is that the best intelligence comes from face-to-face conversation. Highsmith is an affable man with a kind face, he holds a pen in one hand and clipboard in the other, his M-4 rifle rests on his thigh, the muzzle points down. The Iraqis are considerate hosts, they insist you have some chai or maybe a cold flavored soda, Pepsi, orange or pomegranate. After the formalities, the staff sergeant gets down to business by asking the Baghdadis a question they possibly never heard under a dictatorial regime.

“How can we help you?”

What follows is a litany of complaints that range from the menacing red beret National Police, who are forbidden to enter the neighborhood, to concerns about strangers down the street, or right next door. Highsmith listens and takes notes, nodding his head every now and then as the interpreter roughly translates the words that stand for concern, mistrust and uncertainty. Highsmith’s military customer service is impeccable – he’s polite, non-invasive and empathetic.

“I understand why he would feel that way,” he tells the father who only wants to protect his family. It’s almost like a therapist dealing with a patient, and Highsmith has a greater motive than filling out a form. It’s not that Highsmith is insincere, in fact one of the strengths of the military in Iraq is that they actually do care enough to risk their lives to make the trip to the neighborhood and ask the question. But these simple “close encounters” are the best way for engaging the population, for showing Baghdadis that they can rely on Americans for protection, service and if they have any information about possible terrorists activities, they can talk about that too. I was only with Charlie Troop for a short period, just over an hour and three homes, but in that time, I got a sampling of the caseload.

A student had missed a year’s worth of school because his university was several miles away, and he feared being stopped at a checkpoint where he could be taken hostage by pretend or real police. An unemployed teacher asked when Coalition Forces were going to open an elementary school in the neighborhood. A family complained they had no water for several days, as the sewage pipes had been destroyed by either an IED attack or years of neglect – it was always hard to tell.

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1st Brigade 4th Cavalry on guard (Courtesy Matt Sanchez)

Since the surge, units like the 1-4 Cav have been able to concentrate their efforts in a very specific area. Highsmith’s job is to make contact and introduce himself. He takes off his glasses so he can look Iraqis in the eyes, a gesture the men appreciate, but ill-advised for the female population.

By all accounts, when the Americans arrived, they did not have the sheer manpower needed to engage that critical mass of the Iraqi populace. Just after the war, Iraqis believed Americans, with their superior technology and abundant cash would literally cure the ailing millennial city as fast as they had defeated Saddam’s much-vaunted Republican Guard. One man told me he practically expected the Americans to instantly put food, television sets and a brand new car on each doorstep, the way a paperboy delivers the news.

New residents arrive in Dora all the time, some come fleeing dangerous neighborhoods while others may just want to move into a new house. A recent refugee was not happy. His neighbors had threatened his life and the lives of his wife and kids. He learned Dora was a Sunni-friendly area and decided to move into one of the many abandoned homes. Highsmith visited the man six days after his arrival. In a short time, he already seemed well-adjusted on the white plastic lawn chairs of “his” patio. The recent resident refugee had shelter and safety, everything to be glad for, but this man only spoke of one thing – revenge.

“I know who those people were, the ones who made me leave my home.”

With all the talk of sectarian violence, on the surface it seems very simple: Group A hates group B, group B feels it is OK to rob, steal and murder people from group A, so retaliation leads to frustration and hostilities escalate, or at least that’s the media translation. But the reality is a bit more complicated – or simpler – depending on your point of view.

You see, in Baghdad, where I interviewed many Iraqis on the subject of old hatreds, religious sects or ethnic cleansing, almost all of them said there is no difference between Shia and Sunni. In fact, historically many neighborhoods have been very mixed, with Shia and Sunni marriages not uncommon. This may be where confusion in language and culture comes in, because in Baghdad violence often takes place along ethnic lines, but the reasons are possibly simpler than religious ideology.

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Iraqi joint service meetings start with introductions, formalities and traditions that seem tedious to many ‘get down to business’ Americans. This soldier stood at his post, unflinching for nearly two hours (Courtesy Matt Sanchez)

Greed. The angry man knew very well who had forced him to leave his home, because the aggressors were mostly his neighbors, people he knew. In a violent version of keeping up with the Jones, some Iraqis bullied their neighbors and took whatever they pleased, including another man’s life. Groups like AQI, al-Qaida Iraq, stoked the flames by strategically killing specific families. A lack of city police, or too many police joining in on the spoils, let a lot of people literally get away with theft, intimidation and murder. In response, groups formed small militias like JAM, Jaish al Mahdi, a mostly Shia paramilitary organization with franchises that broke down to street gangs. JAM not only pledged to protect its Sunni brethren by taking up arms and attacking the aggressors, but also gave assistance to widows and sometimes provided health care in exchange for loyalty.


VIDEO: Col. Ricky Gibbs outlines the strategy for dealing with the terrorist threat. Aggressive, methodical and determined, the colonel has doggedly lowered the violence.

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Kidnapping, black market fuel sales and extortion were all fund-raising techniques for acquiring resources to provide better social services and expand influence. When someone refused to pay, or just wanted to stay out of the whole game, entire families ended up slaughtered and their homes were given to more loyal patrons while residents kept their mouths shut for fear of drawing unwanted attention. That was the story of some of the new arrivals to Dora. One man had been in his home for less than a week. He did not know the owners, but needed a place for his family. Dora was dangerous, but his old neighborhood was certain death.

For the past week, there had been a rash of VBIED – Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Devices. A vehicle that didn’t belong, and sometimes a few that did, were packed with enough explosives to shatter windows far away from the detonation point. In Fallujah, I felt an explosion from a VBIED factory that seemed to shake a police station several miles away. Nervous residents called the 1-4 Cavalry to respond to abandoned cars left in the neighborhood, or vehicles that looked suspicious. Sometimes there was no cause for danger, but on three occasions in the past three weeks, the vehicles detonated as soon as the area was cordoned off by Army EOD, Explosive Ordinance Disposal. The author of the acts was watching, testing response and waiting.

The soldier’s greatest asset was human intelligence, those who had heard something, knew something or sometimes just had a hunch. In a court of law, rumor and fact are held to entirely different standards, but for a counter-insurgency – that is, fighting an enemy lurking within the civilian population – the separation between gossip and truth can mean a tip on an explosion before it happens or the surprise of an attack as it happens.

VIDEO: How do servicemen and women interpret the news from back home? Most of those serving in Iraq, especially the younger soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, don’t bother to watch the news. Marine Cpl. Christian Wiley, of Garland, Texas, volunteered, “I don’t care what the liberal media back home is telling our families and trying to scare them, Iraq is improving.” On this occasion, the report was specifically on the effects of the increase of troops in Baghdad.

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The real proof that Dora was changing came with the amount of human intelligence the 1-4 Cav received. After the interview and a long list of questions on a type of application, Staff Sgt. Highsmith handed the residents a card written in both English and Arabic and reminded them that the 1-4 Cav was just a call away and always in the neighborhood. If the neighbor did not want to be singled out, he told the man they could see everyone on the block and visit him.

The extra troops provided the military muscle for 24-hour patrols seven days a week.

One day, there was a tip that a man driving a black BMW had a suicide vest and was threatening the residents. There was even a name attached to the possible attacker. So, the 1-4 Cav quickly found someone matching the description. They detained one man in a black BMW and checked him out through the database. He was clean, or at least never previously detained. The incident was noted and the man released.

At a joint security service meeting between the police, Iraqi Army, National Police and American soldiers, the head police pleaded with Americans that he could not process more detainees. He wanted a moratorium on arrests, but as suspects were detained and shuffled through the system, the violence went down – remarkably. Suspects, almost all men, had to be released within 48 hours, but they were now in the system, no longer anonymous.

It was the strangers who were not allowed into the neighborhood. As the big concrete walls went up around the area, everyone had to pass through an ECP or entry control point. Precisely the last thing a bad guy wanted to do. To reduce the risk of sniper fire, Army engineers put up the T-barriers in the dead of the night. Capt. Jennifer Krueger of the 610 BSB Delta Company oversaw the placement of 20 more concrete barriers with her dark horses. In less than a month, the entire neighborhood would become fortified, a situation intolerable for the terrorists.

Terrorists were less effective, and the neighborhood business began to flourish. The huge concrete barriers prevented stray bullets from harming shoppers. Six months earlier, 32nd Street had only 11 businesses open, and many closed as soon as the sun went down. The night we patrolled, there were well over 50 active store fronts with several applicants inquiring about the Americans’ small business loans of up to $2,000. Dora had changed.

This was precisely the type of change armed terror groups wished to deter. In the dead of night, several men went through enormous effort to knock down one barrier. Was this an act of desperation or defiance? Difficult to translate.


Related special offers:

The Final Move Beyond Iraq

Beyond Iraq: The Next Move

The Dunces of Doomsday


Previous stories:

‘General’ public should provide real support

U.S. soldiers befriend Iraqi children

War secret: Iraqis actually like the U.S. military


Matt Sanchez, originally from California, is a New York City-based writer currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. His work has appeared in the New York Post, National Review and the Weekly Standard.

A corporal in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and a student at Columbia University where he’s working on degree in American Studies, Sanchez says his mission in Iraq is “to report on the stories that matter the most, first-person accounts by the men and women on the ground.” His blog, Matt-Sanchez.com, chronicles his work.


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