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Safety of an Iraqi town is a matter of give and take

In Yousifiya, U.S. and Iraqi commanders seek to get key Sunni Arabs less focused on aid and more on fighting rebels.

December 29, 2007|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

YOUSIFIYA, IRAQ — The sheiks and other local leaders rattled off requests to an Iraqi army commander and U.S. military officers one recent morning.

One asked where the tower was that he had been promised for the checkpoint guarded by his tribesmen. Another said his checkpoint lacked basic supplies, such as sandbags. Yet another demanded more men to staff his checkpoint, and asked for extra cash to pay them.

The Iraqi army commander, Amman Ibrahim Mansur, a tall burly man, calmly addressed his 20 or so guests.

"You can tell everybody we're going to start on a new page," he said.

Then he demanded that the local leaders do more to cooperate with his troops and U.S.-led coalition forces to help root out insurgents and enforce security in the area.

The goal is to turn towns such as Yousifiya, a mostly Sunni Arab enclave 10 miles south of Baghdad, into safer zones that can eventually be pieced together to form a stable, democratically ruled country.

The process is sometimes messy, but U.S. military officials and Iraqi military leaders say they are slowly making progress.

Part of that messy process is to teach these local leaders, steeped in their age-old tribal culture based on patronage, corruption and fear, to lead in more effective, democratic and law-abiding ways.

Members of the group assembled recently certainly had tuned in to what they could get from both governments. But not all were totally sold on what they had to give up.

Some, for example, had been facilitating the movement of insurgents in the area and entry of foreign fighters into the region, Mansur said. One sheik, caught working with militants, had landed in jail. And two women recently had been gunned down at checkpoints supervised by some of the sheiks gathered in the commander's office.

"Enough of this!" Mansur reprimanded the group. "Enough of the bloodshed! It must stop! You are the leaders inside the community. You know who the bad guys are. And you can stop them."

Some of the leaders nodded or muttered in concurrence. Others sat impassively smoking, or sipping hot, syrupy-sweet tea.

Army Lt. Col. Andrew Rohling, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, sat listening to the elders' requests.

Careful not to use a threatening tone, he explained to the leaders that meeting their demands for improvements to checkpoints, more men and more pay, would require the contracts for the concerned local citizens groups that guard their neighborhoods to be renegotiated.

When these groups first started in Iraq, each leader worked out a deal with the U.S. commander in the area, Rohling told the men. So there were different plans, depending on where a group was located and the number of volunteers. Some groups ended up with more men, and therefore more money, than others. The going rate for the civilian guards is $10 to $15 a day.

"What we're struggling with now is, how do you make it fair for everybody?" Rohling said. And more important, he told the leaders, was figuring out how to gradually move some of the armed volunteer guards into other jobs, such as the national police force.

"Because I think we all agree, we can't pay volunteers for the rest of their lives," Rohling said.

Again, there were nods of agreement along with noncommittal stares.

"A lot of what you get is posturing," Rohling said later. He acknowledged that he often must combine softer diplomacy with military assertiveness to coax and cajole some local leaders to cooperate.

"It's a cultural challenge," the U.S. commander said. "In the end they will need to follow our plan, but we've got to make them feel that it's their plan."

One of the main difficulties is determining the best person to take charge, Rohling said.

"Who's going to stand up and say, 'I'm the sheik'? They either fear, or they're dead."

The local council has proved to be largely ineffectual, the commander pointed out. Corruption is rife, and some officials are known to be profiting from the sales of seed and grain intended for the population.

Rohling said his strategy emphasizes empowering those sheiks willing to lead. He defers to them on many decisions that involve the population. The tactic has yielded some success. Many former fighters are listening to their leaders' call for calm.

For the most part, the bombings have stopped, said Capt. Michael Starz of Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, whose troops share the patrol base with Mansur's forces. And numerous civilians have volunteered to become part of concerned local citizens groups to help secure their town. Twenty men are assigned to each checkpoint, eight to 12 per shift.

However, progress is slow. On a recent day, for example, a few patrons trickled into the well-known Yousifiya market. In safer times, Starz said, about 10,000 customers a day passed through the throng of hawkers and maze of stalls selling a colorful array of vegetables, fruit and clothes.

And since a sniper recently killed an Iraqi policeman, some Iraqi law enforcement and military personnel are afraid to patrol the streets -- even with a U.S. military escort -- he said.

The map in Starz's operations room has red flags indicating battle positions, some less than a mile from the patrol base.

His troops have engaged in several clashes and been targeted by bombs. But they have avoided casualties.

Taming Yousifiya is "on the road to success," Starz said.

But they're not there yet.

--

ann.simmons@latimes.com

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