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Friday, May 25, 2007

Iraqis taking the lead at Al Suleikh

Friday, 25 May 2007
By Sgt. Mike Pryor
2nd BCT, 82nd Abn. Div. Public Affairs
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BAGHDAD - Capt. James Peay was starting to feel like a third wheel.

Peay, a battery commander with the 82nd Airborne Division from Nashville, Tenn., was accompanying Iraqi police chief Lt. Col. Ahmed Abdullah on a combined engagement patrol through the east Baghdad neighborhood of Suleikh.

Whenever they stopped to speak with people on the street, Ahmed did most of the talking. Peay stood off to the side, listening as his interpreter translated. His comments were mostly limited to hellos, goodbyes, and thank-yous.

This was Ahmed’s show, and Peay was more than happy to give him the spotlight. It’s not that he is shy, Peay said later, it’s that, ultimately, stability in Iraq depends on the Iraqi security forces – and people like Lt. Col. Ahmed - taking the lead.

Successfully negotiating that difficult transition has become one of the major focuses of the entire war effort, especially since the kick-off of the new security plan for Baghdad, which has placed thousands of additional U.S. and Iraqi forces in Baghdad communities, often living together in the same compounds.

Peay commands one of those new shared bases – the Suleikh Joint Security Station. For more than three months, paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division have been living and working side-by-side with the Iraqi police and Iraqi army at the JSS to coordinate security efforts in Suleikh.

The paratroopers from Battery A, 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, man the JSS 24 hours a day.

They have a cramped section of the building to themselves, stacked high with boxes of canned food, water and other supplies. The police stay on the other side of the same building, and the Iraqi soldiers stay in another part of the complex. At least once a day, liaisons from the three units meet in the conference room to discuss operations.

When the JSS was first established, the area was so dangerous that the police rarely left the station. Some days, they went out only to pick up one of the dead bodies regularly dumped in the neighborhood.

Three months later, things changed. The U.S. presence helped bring the level of violence down significantly. At the same time, it emboldened the ISF to raise their profile in the area – particularly the police.

“They know we’re here to support them, but at the same time, they’re getting to a point where they know security as a whole is in their hands,” said 2nd Lt. Jesse Bowman, an Alpha Battery platoon leader from Reynoldsburg, Ohio.

The difficult part, now, will be to maintain the security while the U.S. forces step back and the ISF step up.

Peay’s patrol with Ahmed, May 18, his first as the new battery commander, gave an encouraging glimpse of the future.

Before the patrol started, platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Nichols, of Lewisburgh, W.V., went over tactics and procedures with the Iraqis. When he was satisfied everyone was on the same page, the patrol moved out.

With a phalanx of police and paratroopers around them, Peay and Ahmed spent several hours walking a loop of the neighborhood around the JSS. They talked to people in their houses, outside washing their cars, on their way to work or anywhere else they found them. Almost everyone complained about sewage or electricity, which, in the big scheme of things, Peay found promising.
“If they’re complaining about the power, security must be pretty good,” he said.

Sometimes people came right out of their gates to talk with Ahmed in the middle of the street, an act that newly-arrived platoon leader, 1st Lt. Larry Rubal, from Old Forge, Pa., found incredible. At his old unit, people were afraid to be seen talking to U.S. or Iraqi security forces.“I was very surprised by how willing people here were to come out and talk to us in the middle of the road,” he said. “They were just very open.”

Peay rarely had to ask a question. Ahmed was running the show. At one point Rubal asked his interpreter to make sure a man they were talking to received a pamphlet with the number of a crime tip line. The man produced one from his pocket. Ahmed had already given it to him.“You’re too quick,” Rubal said to Ahmed, laughing. Ahmed shrugged.“He really took the lead and got out there,” Peay said afterwards.

Peay said he’d like to build on the day’s success by conducting more joint patrols and joint operations. And whenever possible, he’ll continue to keep the U.S. in the background.
“I’d rather our guys just stand outside and have (the ISF) do everything,” he said.
In the meantime, Peay has another patrol scheduled with Lt. Col. Ahmed. And as the ISF continue to make gains in securing the streets of Baghdad, it looks like Peay will have to get used to being the third wheel.

Photo - 1st Lt. Larry Rubal (kneeling), platoon leader with Battery A, 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, watches as Lt. Col. Ahmed Abdullah, the local police commander, asks an Iraqi woman some questions during a joint patrol. Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Mike Pryor.

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