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In Iraq, a sharp shift from killing to kindness

U.S. soldiers in Baghdad struggle with the increasingly blurred "lines of operation" in which they go from combat operations to rebuilding work.
A female U.S. soldier escorts a woman out of the danger zone following a suicide car bombing in Baghdad on Nov. 29.
A female U.S. soldier escorts a woman out of the danger zone following a suicide car bombing in Baghdad on Nov. 29.Hadi Mizban / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

For Army Capt. Rex Blair, the contrast was jarring.

One minute a few weeks ago he was handing candy to a little girl in a southern Baghdad neighborhood. Then, suddenly, he received word over his military radio that a U.S. patrol had been ambushed along the Tigris River a couple of miles away. One soldier was dead, five were wounded.

Blair and his unit rushed to the scene, as did other nearby members of the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment. They overwhelmed the insurgents and easily won the battle. But Blair discovered that the U.S. soldier who had died was a close friend.

The next day, he was back trying to assist Iraqis by paving a road and installing a water pump.

Switching from kindness to killing and back, sometimes within minutes or hours, is a strange experience for many U.S. soldiers here. It results from fighting a tenacious insurgency while trying to win over a population and build a new nation. And it demands a mental flexibility that taxes Blair and his fellow soldiers.

"To go from one mind-set to another, that's what has been most tiring," said Blair, a 29-year-old West Point graduate who was escorting a journalist on a tour of Baghdad's restive al-Rashid district. "In all the courses you've had, nothing prepares you for that."

Blurred lines
This unusual war is altering not just the way U.S. troops must think but how they are defined. In its campaign plan, the U.S. military command has stipulated what it calls "lines of operation." There is the traditional combat operations line, which means finding and eliminating the enemy. But there also are lines for restoring essential services, developing economic pluralism and promoting democratic government.

Normally, Blair's job would be to manage scouts. Instead, he has been designated company commander for the rural area on Baghdad's southern edge. Similarly, Capt. Jason Whitely, 27, an operations officer who in regular combat would coordinate the issuance of orders, handles local governance matters. Capt. Daniel Ramos, 26, another operations officer, monitors contracts. And Capt. Jason Morgan, an artillery officer, is responsible for telling his unit's story to the Iraqi people.

"They trained me well for firing, but never for seeing U.S. soldiers die one day and trying to help the Iraqi people the next," Morgan said. "Human nature is to seek revenge."

The commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, Maj. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, has cautioned his troops to keep such urges in check.

"The general teaches us all the time that we must maintain discipline and rules of engagement," said Lt. Col. Jay Allen, the battalion commander. "If we're not accountable for our actions, this will very easily become only combat operations."

'The biggest ammo we have now is money'
Chiarelli, a tank officer who taught political science at West Point, arrived in Iraq in March convinced that public works projects could be more effective than guns in deciding the future of the country. As the senior U.S. officer responsible for greater Baghdad, he has spent much of the year having his troops put sewers in neighborhoods that never had them, roads where donkey paths had existed and lights where there was only darkness at night.

Such tangible benefits are intended to boost public support for the democratic order being ushered in by U.S. forces and to reduce much of the animosity toward the U.S. military presence.

"The biggest ammo we have now is money," Allen said. "Many Iraqis are never going to love us, but the stuff we're doing is going to at least keep them neutral."

What impact?
But how much impact the economic assistance has had toward winning Iraqi hearts and minds is hard to say, according to officers here.

Allen cited a recent intelligence tip as an example of the positive things that have resulted from U.S. troops engaging with the local community. Last week, he said, as soldiers from his battalion kicked around a soccer ball with Iraqi children near the Yassin mosque, two older women approached. They informed the soldiers that people were moving rocket-propelled grenades into the mosque.

Two days later, on Nov. 27, members of the Iraqi National Guard, supported by Allen's battalion, raided the mosque, capturing a large cache of munitions and detaining the local cleric, Allen said.

But such tips have yet to amount to a trend. And in al-Rashid, attacks on U.S. troops, after declining sharply since last spring, have hovered at several a day since June. The number has spiked to more than 10 a day in periods coinciding with stepped-up violence elsewhere in Iraq.

Proud of its assistance efforts, the 5th Brigade Combat Team, which has responsibility for al-Rashid, has assembled a photo album of before and after shots, documenting dramatic improvements: piles of garbage removed, pools of sewage drained, irrigation canals cleared. But brigade members noted that simply building things and turning them over to the Iraqis to run would not be sufficient, a fact that became clear when looking at a few of the showcase projects.

At the new al-Furat medical clinic, where the brigade spent $2.7 million to transform what had been a Republican Guard brigade headquarters, few doctors or patients were in evidence. The nearly deserted facility, completed in September, is now operated by the Health Ministry.

Lt. Col. Bill Salter, who commands the 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, which patrols the neighborhood, acknowledged being puzzled by the eerie absence of activity at the clinic. He speculated that it might have something to do with the clinic charging for medical services that in Iraq are supposed to be free. Indeed, a sign at the reception desk announces that a visit costs the equivalent of about 35 cents.

At another stop — a women's center established in a renovated villa that U.S. officers said had been used by Saddam Hussein's sons — computers installed for use in an Internet training course were nowhere to be found. They apparently had disappeared overnight.

Such situations highlighted what several U.S. soldiers said were some of the obstacles they had faced in pressing the economic assistance line of operation. Corruption, poor-quality contract work, a lack of formal local governing structures — all have posed added challenges.

"The hardest part isn't cleaning it up, it's changing the mind-set of the people," said Maj. Chris Spohn, essential services team chief for the 5th Brigade Combat Team. He had just finished explaining how laying new sewage networks would do little good if Iraqis kept throwing trash into the system instead of having the garbage carted away.

A relay race
By the end of the year, Chiarelli's division will have spent about $1.5 billion on new projects in Baghdad. But Chiarelli sees significant gaps in the systems being built.

That is because the reconstruction program, designed last year, put too much emphasis on investments in large capital projects such as power plants, sewage facilities and water treatment stations, Chiarelli said. It neglected, in his view, to provide sufficiently for the electrical wiring, sewage lines and water pipes to connect these large facilities to individual Iraqis.

"My own opinion is, that's not the way to do reconstruction," the two-star general said. "We should have done reconstruction from the bottom up."

Chiarelli said he has submitted requests for $267 million to help close gaps in distribution networks for electricity, sewage, water and trash disposal in several of the poorest neighborhoods.

The soldiers in al-Rashid said they expect that U.S. forces will be reconstructing and fighting in Iraq for some time to come.

"We don't see this mission as a sprint or a marathon, we prefer to see it as a relay," said Maj. Robert Menti, operations officer of the 5th Brigade Combat Team. "We just want to be able to hand off the baton."