Image: Community meeting in Baghdad
Lauren Frayer  /  AP
U.S. and Iraqi soldiers and local elders attend a local council meeting at an Iraqi community center in north Baghdad on Saturday.
updated 11/11/2006 7:40:42 PM ET 2006-11-12T00:40:42

U.S. soldiers, automatic rifles buckled to their body armor, filed into a community center in a dangerous Shiite neighborhood of north Baghdad Saturday and for a few hours became social workers, cops on the beat and referees between feuding tribesmen.

Tea was passed around, notes were taken, local sheiks spoke in wise tones, heads nodded vigorously in agreement and mundane problems such as garbage collection and distributing electricity generators were tackled.

Maj. Michael Fazio, 36, from Warwick, N.Y., pulled out a cheat sheet — photocopied snapshots labeled with long tribal names that he tried to match with faces in the room.

“This is the battlefield of today,” Fazio said, gesturing at the 200 or assembled — half of them civilians, the rest U.S. and Iraqi military. “At certain levels we didn’t know what we were in for, but we have adapted in our goal of trying to hand over Iraq.”

Encouraging self-reliance
When U.S. troops stormed into Baghdad and ousted Saddam Hussein, few probably understood just how hard it would be to hand the city’s security back to its inhabitants, who are in the midst of killing one another in a sectarian slaughter of massive proportions.

Neighborhood council meetings such as the one in Hurriyah on Saturday were a fixture before and after Saddam, but the U.S. is increasingly looking to them as part of a strategy to encourage Iraqi self-governance and communication between warring sects. To stabilize Baghdad, U.S. soldiers find themselves involved in solving local problems.

“We live on an Iraqi FOB (forward operating base), and we regularly share tea with militia leaders. It’s interesting, and it’s important to maintain dialogue,” said Lt. Col. Steve Miska, a 37-year-old Greenport, N.Y. native.

“Any day if we’re shooting bullets, we’re not winning. Money is more effective here, and the way to do that is dialogue. You need to bring Sunnis and Shiites to the table to get reconciliation,” he said.

Shiites have taken over Hurriyah, a formerly Sunni enclave where U.S. forces have seen increasingly sophisticated attacks. U.S. troops routinely patrol the neighborhood to try to control sectarian violence.

Different perspectives
The neighborhood council meeting was four weeks in the making and progress toward healing the divides was halting. The session lasted 3½ hours, sometimes disintegrating into shouting matches between neighbors or rants against U.S. raids in the neighborhood.

“It’s insulting when we have women asleep and American soldiers conduct raids in the middle of the night. We’re a troubled community, and it isn’t fair to break down doors at midnight. We need to draw lines,” said Adnan Kadhem Juwad, a school administrator in Hurriyah.

Capt. R. Tyler Willbanks, from Gallatin, Tenn., turned to a reporter and asked in a rhetorical whisper: “Did he mention there were 25 dead bodies a day before we got here?” The Army’s 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry, 172nd Stryker Brigade took over security in Hurriyah in August.

Since they began patrols, the 35-year-old company commander claimed he and his men had reduced the death toll in their section of Hurriyah to about three a day.

Outside the auditorium, two U.S. Army snipers clicked their rifles on safety and kicked at tufts of grass to pass the time.

An evolving mission
Inside, Iraqi and American soldiers tossed their helmets in a mound behind the last row of chairs.

Al Kelly, a colonel with 21 years of infantry experience, leaned in to better hear his interpreter, and jotted notes in a leather-bound notebook.

Kelly, who commands the 172nd Stryker Brigade, estimated about 90 percent of those in the room had ties to Sunni insurgents or Shiite militias, although the Sunni contingent was very small. Militia leaders and death squad members by night, they are residents in the daytime who worry about getting the trash collected and seeing that police are stationed near their children’s schools.

Those are the problems where Kelly said he figured the U.S. forces might find an opening into the deeper strife that rages through Baghdad’s increasingly hostile districts.

“It’s the evolution of our mission here,” said Staff Sgt. Tony Prudhomme, 32, from Wilmington, N.C.

The American organizers of Saturday’s session sat in the back rows behind tribal sheiks in long brown robes and turbans.

“We’re here to facilitate a meeting between the Iraqi with the problem and the Iraqi with the solution. Someone figures out how much it’ll cost, someone else comes up with the money, we try to get them to communicate and implement plans, and two months later, a pothole gets fixed,” the 172nd’s Capt. Tom Kurtz, 37, said sarcastically.

Measuring progress
Miska, the lieutenant colonel, said he had found ways to gauge success.

“You measure it in terms of how many people show up, the nature of the dialogue and whether people continue to come — whether it looks like civilian leaders are taking ownership for decisions, and whether they’re being supported by Iraqi security forces. That’s our goal,” Miska said.

“We need to give the 20-something Iraqi men more alternatives for tomorrow than just blowing people up.”

A few U.S. soldiers who arrange meetings such as the one on Saturday are based at Hohenfels, Germany, where the Army has hired an outside contractor with experience in the Balkans to train troops in conflict resolution.

But most are acting on instinct as they try to negotiate between religious factions, set neighborhood councils or rebuild shattered infrastructure.

“I think we’ve got the hang of it now, but it took some time. The company commanders were the most unprepared. They’re infantryman trained for kinetic warfare,” said Kurtz, a fire support officer and spokesman for the 172nd Stryker Brigade.

“Before they deployed, if you’d asked any of these guys if they’d be taking on the role of a policeman or community leader, they’d have never imagined,” he said.

Many of the soldiers in the outfit placed great value on the meeting, perhaps more than anyone else in the room. It got them off the dangerous streets of Hurriyah for a few hours, safe for that much longer before they head home.

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