Winning the Hearts and the Minds of Abu Dischir

Last Tuesday morning, I accompanied the second platoon of 1-4 Cav’s Alpha (“Apache”) Company and members of the sherda, or Iraqi National Police (NPs) on a joint patrol of the southwestern quadrant of the unit’s area of operations, in an area known as Abu Dischir. The main purpose of the patrol, and the house searches it entailed, was to continue showing a sustained US presence in this Shi’a district which is home to large numbers of Jaish al Mahdi, or "JAM" members, and to check for such things as weapons caches and unlicensed firearms (each Iraqi household is allowed a registered AK-47 and thirty rounds, but no other weapons). I was amazed at how drastically different Abu Dischir was from the Sunni neighborhood to its north, al Hadir, where I had been only days before. Al Hadir has been suffering under the dual blights of an influx of al Qaeda and of Shi’a death squads. Instead of trash being piled literally feet high on the streets, the ground in the district was relatively clean. The homes were largely in good repair, with very few abandoned houses. There was almost no gunfire to be heard – a stark contrast with al Hadir, where AK-47 fire can be heard almost around the clock. There was an air of hope, not of despair, as it had been only a few blocks to the north. “Nothing’s going to happen to you here,” said Sergeant First Class Edgy, the unit’s platoon sergeant. “It’s a pretty calm place.”

It was an amazingly calm place, but even more amazing to me was the presence on the streets. People were everywhere; shopping at the market, talking with their neighbors, and walking from place to place with so little overt concern for their safety that they might have been living in Atlanta instead of in Baghdad. Teenagers were playing soccer on a dirt field at the end of the block (photos: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4), and as we drove by houses children came running up to the trucks asking for chocolate and for footballs (photos: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5). As soon as we dismounted from the vehicles, I was mobbed by young people who wanted to shake my hand and to ask for my camera. “Meesta! Meesta!” they would call over and over again to get our attention, always wanting to show us something, or to ask for anything that we had. One soldier was asked for his weapon (he politely refused), and after several requests for my camera had been rebuffed, one enterprising young man of twelve or so approached me with something in his hand, which turned out to be three shiny new quarters. “You see this, meesta?” he said. “It’s money!” I acknowledged that it was indeed money – seventy-five whole cents’ worth – and again politely declined his kind offer of such a generous sum in exchange for my camera.

As we patrolled through the neighborhood, we were continuously besieged by kids who followed us from block to block, crowding so closely around us that, had there been an adult in the area who wished to harm us, he would literally have had to fire through a wall of children. Though this became a bit tiresome after a few hours, I have to admit that the Iraqi children in that neighborhood were absolutely adorable, and that they were nothing if not extremely friendly. At one point, thirteen or so had crowded around me and around Private First Class Siverd, who was pulling security outside of a house which was being searched. When I turned toward them with my camera, what had been a gaggle suddenly formed itself into a group posing together for a photograph (photos: 1 | 2 | 3).

The young adults looked (as young adults of any nationality do) a bit scruffy and sardonic, wearing their warm-up suits (rumored to be the unofficial uniform of JAM in the area) and keeping a watchful yet mocking eye on us from a safe distance. The adults themselves, though, were nothing if not gracious and hospitable, smiling and waving, saying hello, and welcoming us into their homes if we wanted to search them, and even smiling and posing for photographs in the courtyard while soldiers looked over their homes. Their cooperation went a long way toward keeping the operation very brief and low-key; as I have mentioned before, the people of Dischir seem, by and large, to have bought into the fact that their cooperation will be repaid by kinder, gentler, and shorter American activities in their neighborhoods, and a better overall living situation.

The closest thing to a conflict that we observed was the emotional request from a neighborhood inhabitant for America to repair his house, damaged by a mortar. The man grew more frustrated as his request was not met, and adults from up and down the street gathered around him, Lt. Sisoura (leader of Alpha troop’s second platoon), and the army’s interpreter, known as “Neo” (middle, center left, and center right, respectively, in this photo). After nearly half an hour of heated discussion, the group broke up, and Lt. Sisoura told them all to return to their homes. As he walked over to me, I asked him what had happened. "He wants his house fixed," the Lieutenant said. I responded to this with the obvious question, asking whether he had agreed. "No," he said. "We didn’t do it. We can’t fix everybody’s problems, especially when we didn’t have anything to do with it in the first place."

Trying to "fix everybody’s problems" is a futile task in Iraq. However, attempting to provide both infrastructure and security for the Iraqi people is absolutely necessary in this effort. A large part of the US’s recent mission has been to “win hearts and minds,” which is accomplished by convincing the Iraqis not only that coexistence with US forces is superior to fighting against them, but also that the coalition can provide for them a quality of life that the sectarians and insurgents they are currently putting up with in their areas cannot. While this can work – and is working – in many areas (such as Anbar Province), those controlled by JAM are another matter altogether. Their quality of life – from the cleanliness of their streets (no small issue in Baghdad, large parts of which appear to be one giant rubbish heap), to the safety of their neighborhoods – is assured by the JAM living there. This is further enforced by the fact that many of the NPs, already majority Shi’a, are affiliated with JAM; some even cover their faces – illegally – when on joint patrols in the district, so as not to upset other Sadrist hardliners who might not look kindly upon their cooperating so completely with coalition forces.

Given this, the US cannot easily convince the people of such districts to break with JAM in hopes of receiving even better quality of life at the hands of the coalition; instead, as an intelligence officer told me, “we have to convince them that life in cooperation with us as well as in cooperation with the JAM can be even better than what the JAM provides alone.” The people of Abu Dischir appear to have reached almost that conclusion themselves, to the benefit both of them and of US forces working in the area: that not actively working against the coalition will have a better effect on their well-being than doing so, and because of this, they are able to love in a relatively clean area, which has relatively little violence, in which the people can live and American troops can move in relative safety.

While Anbar can serve as a model for the pacification and reconstruction of provincial Iraq, Abu Dischir has the potential to serve as a model of sorts for parts of Baghdad which are still struggling to reconcile their sectarian affiliations with a desire for a good life. It is not perfect, of course; rumor has it that that Sadrist hardliners who have more desire for violence than the regular inhabitants of the neighborhood have been showing up from elsewhere in Iraq, which could hurt the area’s stability in the near future. However, having gained a foothold in southwestern Baghdad, the coalition can now use the example of this neighborhood to show the rest of the country that the coalition and reconcilable followers of Muqtada al Sadr can in fact coexist, for the benefit of the Iraqi people themselves.