03/01/2006 — KIRKUK, Iraq
Soldiers with the 116th Combat Brigade Team are trying to work themselves out of a job. The obstacles are formidable. The soldiers must:
Train Iraqi police to provide security, but not to rely on U.S. soldiers so much that the police force unravels without the soldiers' assistance.
Help Iraqis work as a community to solve their own problems.
Stabilize an area that has a steady stream of insurgent violence — 16 Iraqi police officers were killed in the past two days — with a fledgling, underequipped police force and a new Iraqi army for protection.
Soldiers are building a spider web of security — but must avoid getting stuck themselves. Soldiers must know when to use force, when to use diplomacy and when to let Iraqis take care of their own safety.
And they must make it clear they are here to train Iraqis, not run the show.
"We want everyone to know we want out of here," said Sgt. Mitch Smith of Boise, commander of the 100-soldier-plus Bravo Company that works out of a patrol base in Kirkuk.
"We try to lead by example and strengthen them," Smith said. "It seems like a lot of it is giving them confidence in themselves."
It's slow, hard, frustrating work. The U.S. has built police stations, installed streetlights, improved sewers, built a soccer field and donated to local mosques. Soldiers have helped families find out about the status of Iraqi suspects detained by Iraqi police.
But when the carrot of assistance and civil projects don't work, soldiers are not afraid to use the stick.
"The next option we have if cooperation doesn't work is we will crack down and raid Oruba every night," 1st Lt. Aaron Jarnagin of Idaho Falls told Iraqis at a recent community meeting of about 60 people in the Oruba neighborhood, where much of Bravo Company's efforts are focused.
The following night, a joint force including Bravo Company soldiers, Iraqi SWAT teams and U.S. Army Special Forces descended on the Oruba neighborhood.
Trucks rumbled through the dark streets and soldiers spread out through a row of houses. Soldiers blew the entry door to a suspected insurgent's home, shattering the night calm.
Police and soldiers quickly searched the home and found their suspect: He was bound and blindfolded and led to a waiting truck.
Soldiers and police hit several homes in Oruba and grabbed five Iraqi men, several guns and some insurgent propaganda. Bravo Company soldiers let Iraqi officers take the lead, as part of their effort to prepare the Iraqis to take over responsibility for their own security.
U.S. soldiers go on the best intelligence they have, usually word of mouth from informants. But sometimes there's no physical evidence to link suspected terrorists to specific crimes. And raiding Iraqi homes is risky — not just to soldiers, but also in efforts to pacify Iraqi citizens.
Soldiers may eliminate one insurgent but create several more if angered family members or friends turn against the soldiers, or decide to aid other insurgents.
"We're faced with that every day we go on a mission down there," said Smith, the Bravo Company commander. "You have to remember there's a lot of revenge in this country. They're almost bound by honor to do something because you shamed them in front of their families, or some other group."
Bravo Company has been focusing much of its attention on Oruba, a poor, predominately Arab neighborhood in southern Kirkuk. It's where soldiers believe many of the insurgents who plant roadside bombs and launch mortars or rockets at U.S. soldiers are operating.
The Arabs are not flattered by the attention. They say they feel targeted. They say they're not responsible for insurgent attacks. They say other people are coming into their neighborhood.
Smith, Jarnagin and 1st Sgt. Steven Woodall of Boise have met several times with Oruba's police, political and religious leaders to improve relations and reduce the number of attacks.
Oruba's police chief and a local muktar, a Muslim religious leader, agreed that relationships between U.S. soldiers and Iraqis have improved.
"The Oruba neighborhood is good and getting better," the police chief said through an interpreter.
The muktar said people in the neighborhood sleep better at night now than at any other time since the invasion.
But setbacks are constant. Insurgents continue their attacks. The people in Oruba have been slow to provide information about insurgents, Smith and Jarnagin said. They emphasized that point at the Oruba community meeting.
"Our relationship is give and take," Smith told the Iraqis. "I have given, and now I have to take a little. I have to know who planted IEDs so I can tell my bosses."
The 116th's goal is to prepare Iraqi police to function on their own. The brigade has helped police with everything from building stations to making sure officers are paid, have weapons and maintain their vehicles. "You name it," Smith said, "we're building it from the ground up."
Police in Kirkuk are far better than the officers the 116th dealt with in Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad, early in their deployment. Police there dropped their weapons and ran when insurgents fired, Smith said.
"Here, they will stand and fight," he said. "It's not just a job for them; it's for their country."
Still, police work in Kirkuk is extremely dangerous. At the end of March, Smith estimated 50 policemen had been killed on duty, most killed by bombs planted by insurgents.
Sixteen more were killed this week in several attacks and bombings.
But Iraqi police also can be corrupt and brutal. Iraqi justice is sometimes closer to the Old West than the modern U.S. legal system. At one meeting with Bravo Company, an Iraqi officer threatened to shoot any insurgent "inside his house and in front of his family."
And families can go months without knowing the location or legal status of Iraqi men arrested by police.
"I have to let the police take care of that stuff on their own," Smith said.
While the courage of Kirkuk policemen isn't an issue, their equipment is. Some police stations don't have phones. Police drive dented and scraped Nissan SUVs. They protect themselves with
AK-47 rifles and 9 mm Glock pistols. There's a stark contrast between police and soldiers, who wear full body armor and drive armored Humvees with mounted machine guns.
The two forces nearly always work together, with Kirkuk police leading the joint patrols.
"All the missions we do here, we try to paint an Iraqi face on them," Smith said.
The Iraqi police and the U.S. soldiers have developed mutual respect — what Smith called "a real bond."
The goal of turning Kirkuk's security over to the Iraqis within six months may not be possible, but the 116th is making making progress, Smith said. He wants his soldiers working with Iraqi citizens as well as police officers, and intends to continue meeting with Oruba community leaders to try to help them solve their problems.
"We have to make this place better than we found it," Smith said, "and that's how we're going to do it."