SOUTHERN KIRKUK, Iraq — The men of Bravo Company, 2-116th are not fighting a conventional war. There's no opposing army, no front line. The battle is for the minds of the Iraqi people, fought between U.S.-backed forces trying to win the trust of Iraqis and insurgents who want to turn the people against the Americans.
U.S. military campaigns are now "stability and security operations." It's a simple concept that's devilishly tricky. Troops from the Idaho National Guard's 116th Brigade Combat Team go into Kirkuk villages and neighborhoods like cops on a beat. Their goal is to maintain peace and order and help the Iraqi police and army take control.
"Our whole purpose is to make sure the city is secure," said Lt. Col. Michael Woods of Boise.
But insurgents who dress and look like Iraqi civilians are trying to disrupt the process, and Kirkuk is hardly harmonious to start with. There are long-standing rivalries between Kurds, Turkomans and Arabs and another layer of rivalries within each of those sects. Latent tensions make Kirkuk a hornets' nest waiting to be whacked with a baseball bat, and the insurgents are out there taking practice swings.
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They plant roadside bombs that kill and maim U.S. soldiers, but lately insurgents have turned their attention to their fellow Iraqis. On Friday, a roadside bomb in Kirkuk killed four Iraqi policemen and wounded four more. Another Iraqi policeman was killed by a bomb Thursday night.
"The Iraqi police and the Iraqi army are taking a lot of hits right now," 1st Sgt. Steven Woodall of Boise said. "But they're hanging in there."
The insurgents' tactics force the soldiers to mostly play defense. "We don't even know who the bad guys are until they shoot at us," said Capt. Mitch Smith of Boise, Bravo Company's commander.
Saturday morning's patrol consisted of nine soldiers — most of them Idahoans — in two Humvees and an ambulance.
The vehicles are fully armored and both Humvees have manned machine-gun turrets on the roofs. Looking out the windshield and side windows of a Humvee is like looking through thick aquarium glass. And if you ever closed your finger in a Humvee door, the doctors would have to sew it back on.
The soldiers patrolled through several neighborhoods in southern Kirkuk. The city's population is estimated between 850,000 and 1.3 million. The population range is so wide partly because there's no census, and partly because tribes of Kurds driven from Kirkuk during Saddam Hussein's rule are returning in droves.
Kirkuk has no nice parts of town, by American standards. But the Arab sections that Bravo Company patrolled Saturday in the south are some of Kirkuk's worst.
Knee-deep garbage is strewn in every vacant lot and piled on sides of the streets. Chickens peck through the rubbish, and occasionally a person wades into the mess to salvage something.
Most houses lack even basic sewage or septic systems: 3-inch PVC pipes jut out from the foundations of the boxy cinderblock houses and drain raw sewage into the streets. Trickling streams of runoff and human waste run through ditches.
Partial, garage-sized cinderblock houses line the streets, and it's hard to tell if they're halfway built or halfway destroyed. Low-slung bundles of power lines run overhead and bring sporadic power into neighborhoods.
Cattle, goats, donkeys, dogs, chickens and geese feed among the houses, eating whatever food they can find — grass, plants or garbage.
Men gather on street corners and in doorways. They are surprisingly well-dressed, in clean slacks or jeans and long-sleeved sweaters or collared, button-up shirts. They wear dime-store plastic sandals. Most stared indifferently when patrolling soldiers drove past. A few smiled and waved; none were openly hostile.
But if their children are any barometer of the mood of the citizens, feelings toward Americans are mixed. Some children smiled and waved. Others frowned and stuck out their thumbs, which is an Iraqi insult. One child threw a rock and hit a Humvee.
The soldiers visited a police station in Aruba, one of Kirkuk's worst neighborhoods. The station was a well-kept oasis in a slum. The captain's office was freshly painted and carpeted, with two couches and two overstuffed chairs. The captain had a Canon copy machine, refrigerator and television with a VCR. Ten minutes after the patrol arrived, the power went off. The captain barely noticed.
A boy at the station served the troops small, clear glasses of hot chai tea, each with a teaspoon of sugar. The captain showed a photocopy of a decapitated young man's head found in Aruba on Friday. The victim was suspected of incest.
After leaving the station, the soldiers stopped their vehicles to pass out candy to a crowd of children. Some kids immediately approached the troops. Other stood back shyly, cautiously approaching for a Tootsie pop. Some parents kept their distance; others approached smiling.
Both stops were part of the soldiers' mission, said Capt. Smith. Troops want to maintain a presence in the city, support the local police and pressure the insurgents who want to turn neighborhoods against the Americans.
Recently, the insurgents haven't had much luck, Smith said.
"Things in the city are pretty good," he said. "But we have to worry about tensions between the three ethnic groups, and the insurgents turning them against each other."