By Staff Sgt. Margaret C. NelsonJuly 8, 2008
HAWIJAH, Iraq (Army News Service, July 8, 2008) -- Two middle-aged men enjoyed a friendly afternoon game of checkers in a busy marketplace, while shoppers and foot traffic passed by.
A similar scene wouldn't warrant a double-take in any town in the United States. But this game stood out for who was playing and where. It was Lt. Col. Christopher Vanek, commander, 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry and Sons of Iraq leader Khalaf Ibrahim Ali across the board from each other -- neither in body armor -- sitting in an area once nicknamed "the Anbar of the North."
While the two concentrated on their game, onlookers admired their competing strategies, while unknowingly participating in their mutual strategy in Hawijah -- the game was as much a leisure activity between comrades as it was a public performance to help convince local Iraqis the time is right to start leading normal lives again.
"This is a statement to the enemy, to the peace-loving people of Hawijah, and to the provincial government," Vanek said. "Enduring security gains have been established here, representative government is working well, Iraqi Security Forces are responsible for security, the economy is booming and it is time for the provincial government to step forward and serve all districts."
Vanek said now is an incredible period in the development of a democratic, representative form of government in the district of Hawijah. That he and a comrade can safely play checkers in an open market -- that represents success in Iraq.
Both Vanek and Ali credit the change to an increased confidence in the ISF, coalition tactics which target only suspected terrorists, and the empowerment of local citizens to reclaim their streets through the Sons of Iraq.
The efforts have nearly eliminated the presence of al-Qaeda here, Ali said.
"They disguise themselves, like thieves in the night now," Ali said. "Now, during the day, they disguise themselves by changing their eye color, cutting their hair, changing their appearance. They are not wanted here. They have brought us nothing but violence, destruction, fear and lies."
Ali also said the insurgents are getting the message that the citizens of Hawijah will not assist their efforts.
Close to 8,000 members of Sons of Iraq have been positioned throughout Hawijah since the inception of the reconciliation program here in December.
"We were able to offer a choice to fathers who were trying to feed their families and men who where trying to begin families -- eliminating a huge recruiting pool for the insurgents here," Vanek said.
Sons of Iraq also provided an avenue for coalition forces and Iraqis to interface.
"Before Sons of Iraq, the coalition force would be too busy fighting the enemy to get to know the people around them," Ali said.
Now, coalition forces and Iraq men who are part of Sons of Iraq are able to interact and form relationships such as the bond that Vanek and Ali have developed.
"We are not so different," Ali said of his friend. "We all want peace and a place where our children and grandchildren can live and prosper without fear and violence."
As to who won the checker game, Vanek smiled and said, "considering Ali and I are here together; me--without body-armor, in an area where commerce has returned, and the citizens can reap the benefits without fear or reprisals, in an area once thought lost to the insurgency -- we're both winners, more importantly -- the citizens of the district are the true winners."