US officer feeling sidelined as Iraqis take over

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009
— A few days ago, Capt. Nathan Williams asked the Iraqi battalion commander in charge of a northern Baghdad district whether he needed help with a planned security operation. The response, judging by the silence and body language, was clear: a polite "Thanks, but no thanks."

The U.S. Army officer from Raleigh, North Carolina says he took no offense and wasn't surprised.

Not once since Williams and his infantry company pulled out of the Hurriyah district in north Baghdad nearly three months ago has the Iraqi commander, Maj. Hussein Adhab Salman, or any of his officers, accepted the many offers of help from Williams and his troops or asked for their assistance.

"We worked ourselves out of a job," said Williams, referring to the sharp drop in violence over the past two years. "This is what the end of a counterinsurgency looks like."

Williams' company, part of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment based in Fort Riley, Kansas, quit Hurriyah a month ahead of the June 30 deadline set by the U.S.-Iraqi security pact for American forces to leave the cities. It is now stationed at a large U.S. base on Baghdad's western outskirts.

Lately, a spate of deadly bombings in the capital at least 101 people died in a wave of attacks Wednesday has raised fears that six years after the U.S.-led invasion, the Iraqis are still not ready to take over security.

But Hurriyah, mostly blue-collar Shiite, remains largely peaceful, and Sunnis who fled when sectarian violence was at its worst in 2006 and 2007 are slowly moving back. Behind Hurriyah's six-foot-high blast walls, outdoor markets teem with shoppers, and cafes and eateries are doing good business. Public parks are packed and Salman says efforts by Shiite militiamen to woo Hurriyah people to their anti-American cause have failed.

"The people now fully realize that they are evil," said Salman.

Before the Americans left Hurriyah, its inhabitants saw Williams as mayor, peacekeeper, military commander, financier, public works supremo and job creator.

Now, he half-jokes to a visitor, "My schedule is wide open."

He spends much of his time preparing for his troops' return to the U.S. next month. He takes inventories and supervises the packing of gear and equipment. He also is training for a 10-mile group run next month at Victory Camp, the sprawling U.S. military complex near Baghdad's airport.

When Williams and his forces arrived in Hurriyah in November, their mission was primarily to head off a resurgence of sectarian violence, keep militiamen off the streets, protect families settling back into their homes and helping local authorities provide better services.

These days they make only occasional forays into Hurriyah, six miles from their new base, and time passes a lot more slowly.

"I honestly expected that we will continue to do more joint patrols with the Iraqis," said Williams. "We never really expected things to turn out this way. None of us is used to not being busy. We had to let go of something that we liked for so long."

Early this month, he said, his troops suited up, ready to rush to Hurriyah after a roadside bombing, but their Iraqi partners told them not to bother.

"They told us they had everything under control, which they did. This would not have been the case several months ago, but clearly they have come into their own," said Williams.

Hurriyah people used to approach the Americans on the streets or at their outposts and give them information on insurgents or criminals.

That has all but stopped, Williams said, but he still runs a tip phone line, staffed by Iraqi interpreters 19 hours a day.

Instructions on a sheet plastered on the wall are meant to keep the interpreters focused and alert. They can only leave their post to go to the toilet or fetch their replacement. The telephone must not be used for personal calls.

Williams' troops also continue to give out cards with the phone number whenever they are back at Hurriyah.

Williams, 28, and Salman, a portly 43-year-old career soldier, were all business when the two recently met at the Iraqi commander's headquarters. They discussed security in Hurriyah, using laser pointers on a satellite image of the district.

They agreed the flow of returning Sunnis has stayed the same since the Americans left and that there has been no increase in sectarian incidents.

Williams handed Salman a yellow folder containing intelligence in several color printout sheets of diagram trees. Then they met with only Williams' interpreter present to discuss individuals who should be investigated as suspected insurgents.

While he never asks for help in his operations, Salman says he still needs the intelligence gathered by the Americans.

"They have the technology and the financial resources to pay informers," he said. "I don't even have an intelligence officer or budget. I give some of our informers prepaid phone cards so they can call me."

Last updated: 11:05 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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