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In one Iraqi village, a taste of what might be

U.S. troops reach out with aid as part of an effort to secure an insurgent stronghold.

December 24, 2007|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

OWESAT, IRAQ — On a recent December morning, Spc. Daniel Jones, a member of the civil affairs team that falls under the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, helped to unwrap an array of goodies in a school classroom set up as a makeshift distribution center.

Scores of residents from Owesat, a village about 15 miles southwest of Baghdad on the west bank of the Euphrates River, showed up to collect the gifts. They included blue, black and red children's rucksacks, packets of pencils, woolly hats, aloe vera lip seal, key chains with spotlights, and small bottles of shampoo.

"Our job is to try and have them like us a little more," said Jones, 20, from Walter, S.C. "We ask them, 'What do you need? How much water do you have? How good is the water?' "

Engaging villages like Owesat is a key part of the U.S. military's strategy to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis. By helping to provide basic services, such as medical aid and humanitarian supplies, the military hopes Iraqis will become more tolerant of coalition forces based in their homeland, begin to provide intelligence on militants and cooperate with efforts to create a stable environment.

"We're just trying to give them a taste of what could happen if they quit turning their heads and stop cooperating with Al Qaeda," said Capt. Terry Hilderbrand Jr., commander of Company A, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. He spoke at Patrol Base Dragon, an abandoned Russian power plant, where his troops have set up shop across the river from Owesat.

The operation to secure the village, a predominantly Sunni Arab enclave and a known stronghold for Al Qaeda in Iraq militants, began shortly after three local sheiks approached coalition forces requesting that American troops establish a presence there, Hilderbrand said. The sheiks had seen how coalition forces worked with neighboring communities to form concerned local citizens groups that would help safeguard their towns. Coalition forces paid the members of these groups between $10 and $15 a day, and the sheiks wanted in on such a deal, the captain explained.

Sheik Najim Abdallah Sarhan offered to temporarily lease the troops a compound to use as Patrol Base Kemple. It sits within the community, and is less than a mile across the Euphrates from Patrol Base Dragon.

Sarhan's motivation was simple:

"Hopefully I will get good things from the coalition forces," he said. His tribe of about 1,500 people needs security, water treatment, food and medical supplies. "I am tired, and everybody is tired. We don't want any enemies. We want to clear the area of bad people."

Hilderbrand liked the idea. The new base would allow his troops to establish a footprint on the western side of the Euphrates River. Coalition forces had conducted operations in the area, but had never planted roots there.

More important, Hilderbrand said, it would allow his troops more access to the surrounding desert to conduct their "No. 1 mission" -- continuing the search for two soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division who have been missing since May.

The operation to secure the village began with dropping 4,000 pounds of explosives on an island in the middle of the Euphrates that was known to be an insurgent sanctuary.

As the bombs were being dropped, eight Black Hawk helicopters and two Chinooks launched an air assault, depositing troops on the ground. Accompanied by Iraqi army forces, the American soldiers went door-to-door registering the military-age men of each household, fingerprinting them and taking retina scans.

Meanwhile, U.S. Army engineers began to build a pontoon bridge to connect Patrol Base Dragon to the prospective location of Patrol Base Kemple. The structure was completed within 48 hours. Within 10 days, the troops moved in.

"We are right there, living among the people, so they know we are serious," said Maj. Curtis Crum, operations officer with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. "Once the population sees that we are committed, more information becomes available."

The troops conducting the recent humanitarian aid distribution, part of a larger medical assistance mission that was the first to Owesat, were under no illusion that although invited into the village, they would not face hostility.

"This area has been sealed off for some time," said 1st Lt. Collin Corrigan, a rifle platoon leader for Alpha Company, as his soldiers escorted the convoy of goods to the school. "They're not used to us being there."

Local men armed with AK-47 rifles, part of a fledgling group of concerned local citizens, staffed several checkpoints along the route. And although the American soldiers had walked to the school numerous times before, they were keenly aware the path could now be laced with improvised explosive devices.

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