Chairman Visits Transformed ‘Wild West’ Iraqi City
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
HAWIJAH, Iraq, March 2, 2008 The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff walked through the bustling market street of this Iraqi town today – a town that al Qaeda ruled just three months ago.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen saw a market crowded with people and shops stocked with goods. And he saw American soldiers and their Iraqi security forces partners operating with incredible professionalism.
Three months ago, this northern Iraqi city was the “Wild West,” said Army Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of Multinational Division North. But a new sheriff came to town in the form of the 1-87th Infantry Battalion task force and cleaned the place up.
“I’m really impressed with the improved security and the speed with which it changed,” Mullen said during his walk down street.
The chairman spoke to Iraqi security forces and with the concerned local citizens – many of them unpaid volunteers -- who help with local security efforts. “All that is positive,” Mullen said. “They want to take control of their own city; they want to provide security and continue to make it better for their people.”
This was the second day that Mullen walked through an Iraqi city. Yesterday, he strolled through a neighborhood in Baghdad’s Rashid district.
The chairman said the concerned local citizens groups – also called the Sons of Iraq – are a phenomenon for peace. Some of these men were Sunni insurgents, but decided the vision offered by al Qaeda was not for Iraq. More than 91,000 Iraqis have joined the groups, and from that have come more than 20,000 new members of the Iraqi security forces. More than 6,500 Sons of Iraq are signed up in Hawijah.
“When you are here on the ground, you really see the security change,” the chairman said. “Many of us talk about it in Washington. Certainly we relay it from briefings and conversations we’ve had with people here. But it’s quite something else to be here and talk to the people. There wasn’t one individual in town here today that didn’t tell me that security wasn’t better. They really emanate hope for the future.”
Jobs are the first priority now, Mullen said. The commander’s emergency response fund is a weapon against terrorists. Both yesterday and today, people talked about microgrants – small loans that help Iraqis start businesses and create jobs. The main ammunition in Iraq against terrorism now is money, not bullets, Mullen said.
Tremendous challenges still exist here. Task force commander Army Lt. Col. Chris Vanek said the city has a 75 percent unemployment rate. Reconstruction money has been slow to arrive from the central government, so the colonel finds himself looking for way to kick-start the economy. The area around the city is primarily agricultural. Vast fields of wheat and other crops stretch for kilometers. The American task force has contracted with Iraqis to clear the irrigation ditches that years of neglect have allowed to be clogged.
Army Command Sgt. Maj. Jesus Febo, the task force’s senior noncommissioned officer, said that three months ago, the shops either were shuttered or housed al Qaeda cells. Task force soldiers and special operations forces killed or captured 16 senior al Qaeda operatives or financiers and the city turned a corner, the sergeant major said.
Vanek told Mullen that the professionalism of his soldiers has been key to success in the area. “These 19-year-old soldiers know how to treat people with dignity and respect,” he said. “That has helped with sparking the growth of the concerned citizens groups.”
The colonel said that mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles have helped protect his soldiers, but that they need to patrol on foot, and have done so.
The chairman visited an agricultural cooperative on the street and heard an earful about the lack of fertilizer. He stopped in and spoke to the proprietor of an electronics store and a falafel stand. He passed hardware stores and money exchanges.
One store on the street displayed wedding gowns. “That’s a sign of hope right there,” said a soldier walking with the chairman. Other stores carried toys, baby clothes and shoes. At the end of the street was a kabob stand. There were also medical offices and dental clinics.
The task force operates out of Forward Operating Base McHenry – about three miles outside the city. Mullen visited with soldiers from the unit there and participated in a ceremony where he presented Purple Hearts to some 1-87 soldiers and promoted others. Afterward, he asked the soldiers to break formation and gather around while he spoke to them.
“This is the first time we’ve seen hope in the peoples’ eyes in this area,” Mullen told the soldiers. “I’m reminded that when we award Purple Hearts like this of the danger that you go through. What I tried to gain in my short visit today is an appreciation of what we’re asking you to do and sacrifice. You’ve lost teammates and had teammates wounded, but it is a job that is vital not only to this area, but this nation.
“When I walked down the street and I talked to the Iraqi citizens and they tell me they are able to put food on the table and walk around without fear,” the chairman continued, “it’s you who are doing that, and we’re grateful to you for what you do.”