Combined forces fight to secure Iraqi town
November 7, 2007
It's a scene reminiscent of an old Spaghetti Western. The good guys, donning their white, 10-gallon hats, mosey down a dusty street, promising justice to the weak and punishment to the wicked, but instead of cowboy hats, the good wear helmets made of Kevlar and the bad, they still wear black.
Set against the backdrop of a mountain range in northern Iraq lies the restive town of Suniyah, a predominately Sunni community in the Salah Ad-Din province, which historically has been a trouble spot for both Iraqis and Coalition Forces. Near the middle of town lies the Alamo, or as the Iraqi Policemen call it, the qul'a or fortress. Out of this fortress laden with wire and concrete barriers, two groups of gunslingers work side by side to rid the town of bandits and rustlers, thieves and killers.
The Alamo is called the Joint Security Station here, and it is manned by Soldiers from Bravo Company, 1/327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division and Iraqi Policemen. Together they train, conduct joint-patrols and interact with the local citizenry in an effort to purge Suniyah of its villains.
The storied "Above the Rest" battalion of the "Screaming Eagles" recently took over operations in the diverse area north of Tikrit, replacing a battalion from the 82nd Airborne Division. "It's a big area of operations with a lot of differences," said 1st Lt. Mark Herlick, B Company executive officer. Herlick's "Bushmaster" company is assigned to the security station in Suniyah and recently had a chance to meet with some of the town's leaders in a city council meeting.
Along with the town's police-chief, several of Suniyah's sheiks met with "Above the Rest" commander Lt. Col. Peter Wilhelm and Bravo Company leaders, to ease the transition between units and to address some of the town's issues.
"Trouble comes to the city out of nowhere, but the IPs are very good," said a local Sheik. "They have established a relationship with the citizens here and are doing a great job," said the Sheik who acknowledged that only a small percentage of locals cause problems. The Iraqi people want what we want -- to live in a safe environment where their kids can go to school and feel safe without having to worry about getting shot or hitting a random improvised explosive device.
In the past, Suniyah's police were ineffective and hesitant to take on the insurgents here because of their ties to the local community. Insurgents would often threaten violence against policemen's families and use extortion to assure their safety.
"The problem was having IPs who are from Suniyah," said Herlick. "Even though they want to do good things, the terrorists would threaten them and their families so they were stuck between a rock and a hard place."
So with the backing of Suniyah's leaders, a new group of IPs were brought in from a different region of Iraq to restore order to the feral town and have been making a name for themselves as peacemakers ever since.
"It's a hundred times better than it used to be here," said Staff Sgt. Jeremy Phelps, 303rd Military Police Company. "The last three months have been a big improvement because the IPs aren't afraid to kick in doors and arrest somebody." Herlick says that the end-state of these combined patrols would be handing off the reigns to the Iraqis while coalition forces ride shotgun. "We are trying to work ourselves out of a job and let the IPs do everything," said Herlick. "We're trying to get to a point where we can provide more of a tactical overwatch and advise as they need it," he said. "The people need to see that the system does work."
On Oct. 21, the collaboration between the IPs of Suniyah and the "Bushmaster" company of the 101st, was put to the test on what seemed like an ordinary mission.
"Our mission was to escort the IPs and some school supplies to the boy's school, and to try and identify some of the school's needs," said 2nd Lt. Eric Spurling, "Bushmaster" platoon leader. A few hundred meters up the street, the IPs took small arms fire from a building and proceeded to engage the enemy, while Spurling's men took up an overwatch position nearby. The policemen worked their way through the gunfight and managed to detain nine suspects, an illegal AK-47 assault rifle and several counterfeit Iraqi Army uniforms.
"Every mission is a combat mission, even if you're going out to deliver school supplies," said Spurling who considers the mission a success even though the supplies never made it to their destination. "It's about what they need to do," he said. "We're just here to support them."
Spurling points to other areas in Iraq, like Tal Afar and the Al Anbar province, where the JSS concept has proven successful. "Living amongst the people and securing them where they sleep is working," he said. As the sun sets slowly on the town of Suniyah, the citizens here can thank an aggressive IP force and their patient partners for the gradual but evident shift from lawlessness to peacefulness.