Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Smoking: a sign of progress

Sgt. 1st Class Angela Mckinzie

2nd BCT, 10th Mtn. Div. (LI) PAO

ZAIDON, Iraq - For nearly two years some Iraqi residents lived in a smoke-free town, but now they have the power to light up again. For Iraqis, smoking is a social tradition. If one were to walk down the streets of any Iraqi village, one would see Iraqis talking, drinking tea and smoking. And when an American is offered a cigarette from an Iraqi it symbolizes an extension of friendship. Due to the overwhelming presence of al-Qaeda living and operating in the Zaidon, Radwaniyah Corridor, located just southwest of Baghdad, residents didn't feel safe socializing and enjoying each other's company. Recently, Iraqi concerned citizens have been coming forward to meet with Soldiers of the 1st Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) out of Fort Drum, N.Y., in the hope of ousting al-Qaeda and their restrictive policies. "The terrorists living in the area were not allowing Iraqis to smoke, listen to music or even drink soda. Iraqi women were also being raped in the name of Jihad," said Capt. Rod Robert, a native of Lewiston, Maine, who serves as the 1-89 Cav. Regt. assistant operations officer. "Basically, the terrorists were taking power from the Iraqis so concerned citizens joined together and decided to rid the area of al-Qaeda." Capt. Ryan Liebhaber, a native of Dayton, Ohio, Troop A commander, led the way for Iraqi volunteers to secure their own area. "We knew members of the 1920s Revolutionary Brigade (a former Sunni insurgent group), had a stronghold in the Zaidon, Radwaniyah Corridor,"Liebhaber explained. "From December 2006 until March 2007 we had been targeting them and actually detained one of their leaders, but for somereason the leader was released." Upon the leader's release the Iraqis planned a celebration, but al-Qaeda showed up at the party and killed the leader. The killing of the 1920 Revolutionary Brigade Leaders was just one of several events tipping the balance in favor of Coalition Forces. On April 14, Liebhaber and his Soldiers were on their way to a town hall meeting, but were extremely late due to an improvised explosive device in the road. Luckily, the IED in the road stopped the patrol as the terrorists had planned an ambush at the town hall, and when the Soldiers of Troop A did not arrive as planned, the terrorists lashed out against the public. "Since we were so late the terrorists got angry and started driving around shooting innocent people," Liebhaber said. "This is when the Iraqis saw the true colors of the terrorists and decided to unite against them (the terrorists)." Liebhaber, who hoped to gather information from the volunteers, decided to meet with them. "I started meeting with them and realized how organized and equipped they were to fight al-Qaeda," Liebhaber said of the volunteers. Soon Liebahaber saw the fruits of his labor. "One day we were in the Zaidon area and a volunteer pointed out two vehicles that terrorists were sitting in," he said. "I would have never known they were terrorists." When Liebhaber briefed his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Mark Suich, about the volunteers, he immediately grasped the significance of this opportunity, and realized that this fleeting opportunity may be a way to establish security and control. He decided to meet with volunteer leaders. "Before we started our meetings with the volunteers we learned that the Marines had been working with other volunteers just east of us who wanted to expand into our AO," Robert said. "The volunteers had already set up checkpoints to the east of Zaidon and were securing their own area." On June 9, leaders from eight different tribes spoke about setting up a 100-man force to establish checkpoints in our area, Roberts mentioned. Just two days after meeting with tribal leaders, the leadership of 1-89 Cav. Regt. met with the Marines. During that meeting they discussed how the volunteers wanted to secure the Zaidon, Radwaniyah Corridor area. Suich also spoke extensively with Nazal Abed Jassim, the Zaidon Village leader and commander of the neighborhood watch group to come up with a plan to help the volunteers. During their conversation, Jassim requested permission to take his 80-man force and attack an al-Qaeda stronghold located in the Wolverines' area of operations. After listening to Jassim's proposal Suich agreed to let the citizens defend themselves against al-Qaeda fighters. He mentioned thathe had been wanting to meet with the leaders for some time. "Since we arrived in Iraq I've been saying we need to establish local police forces to secure the villages," Suich said. "Having the locals secure the area will create an atmosphere of security and control which will enable us to sponsor projects to improve essential services and the local government." A plan was put into action on the morning of June 15 allowing the volunteers to fight al-Qaeda in the Zaidon, Radwaniyah Corridor.With Jassim's plan in place, Suich placed cavalry forces in places where they could interdict if the situation started to threaten adjacent areas. "We could not conduct joint operations with the volunteers, but we could conduct operations which compliment their efforts," said Maj.Steve Simpkins, who serves as the 1-89 Cav. Regt. operations officer."And that is exactly what we did ." After the operation ended and the fighting between the volunteers and al-Qaeda subsided, it was clear who won. "We have accomplished all of our goals today," Jassim said. "The al-Qaeda fighters are gone from this area and now we will establish positions to keep them from returning." With similar success, volunteers have expanded checkpoints from the east of 1-89's area of operation to northern parts within the Zaidon area. Volunteers were spotted dismantling roadside bombs and uncovering caches. Within three weeks there were four volunteer programs that were led by Sheiks throughout the 1-89 area. Although the volunteers were taking over their own sector there still was a screening process to make sure they were not tied to al Qaeda. "In order to make sure the volunteers are really on our side, we put all of their names in a database to see if they had any prior arrests or if anyone was looking for them," Robert explained. "So far there have only been a couple of the volunteers who didn't qualify." There are currently more than 1,300 volunteers in the Zaidon, Radwaniyah area. "I think they were tired of the way al-Qaeda belittled Iraqis,"Robert said of the volunteers. "At first the relationship between the Iraqis and the terrorists was just a marriage of convenience, but when they (the terrorists) started taking control away from the Iraqis things started to change." Liebhaber concurred. "The Iraqis see what kind of life they were living with the terrorists and don't want to go back to that again," he said. "I also think they know that the Americans are not going to be here forever and now they want to be part of a larger government." As volunteers continue to secure their own area it is their hope that they will be able to establish local police forces in the area. "I hope that all Iraqis can live in a safe place, but in order to do this we need local police stations," said Abu Abed Alrahmed, the mayor of Zaidon. "We don't need anything fancy, just a police station with the basic facilities." And to assist with the police stations Liebhaber has met with the mayor of Zaidon periodically to discuss how the police stations will be built. "Most of the volunteers are Sunni and the Iraqi government is Shiite," Leibhaber said. "Now we are trying to convince the Iraqi officials that the volunteers want to be a part of the Iraqi government." Since the volunteers assumed security for their own areas Robert noted that IEDs and the casualty rate in the 1-89 AO was down and municipal infrastructure improvements were on the rise. Leibhaber also pointed out the important role the volunteers played in the War on Terrorism. "They led us to a department of motor vehicles that was used to make fake identification cards for terrorist and turned over the 2nd BCT's No. 1 high value individual," he said. "I remember when we couldn't even go into the Zaidon area because there were so many roadside bombs, but now we can drive the roads into Zaidon with little or no terrorism threats." And when Liebhaber's patrol enters Zaidon, the Soldiers see Iraqis living their normal lives - talking amongst one another, drinking tea and smoking. "It may seem trivial, but when you see people smoking again it is a good thing," Robert said.

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