By Sgt. Mike PryorMay 22, 2007
BAGHDAD (Army News Service, May 22, 2007) - In the first days after his battalion began operating in east Baghdad's Sha'ab neighborhood, Capt. Will Canda said he often saw the beds of Iraqi police trucks stained red with dried blood.
"It was like they had just come from a butcher shop," said Capt. Canda, commander of the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment's Company B, 2nd Battalion.
Like wagons rolling through plague-stricken villages in medieval times, the police trucks were being used to pick up the bodies of murder victims found littering the neighborhood.
That was in February, when Capt. Canda's battalion became one of the first units to join a plus up of additional U.S. and Iraqi forces to stabilize violence in Baghdad. Since then, troops have continued to pour in, dotting Baghdad with small outposts and joint security stations.
Top U.S. commanders have cautioned that any verdict on the overall success of the plan will have to wait until after all units are in place and conducting operations. But Capt. Canda and his paratroopers have been on the ground long enough to begin drawing their own conclusions.
Three months after they arrived in Sha'ab, the bodies are gone, the murders have stopped and the neighborhood has come back to life, he said. "It's night and day from when we got here."
It's an impressive claim considering the challenges facing the paratroopers when they first arrived here in early February. One problem was the size of the region. The battalion's area of operations comprises a huge section of east Baghdad, including the Sha'ab, Ur and Sadr City neighborhoods.
Twenty percent of the city's total population lives within this area of operation, said Maj. Trey Rutherford, the battalion's operations officer. That equals out to a rough ratio of one paratrooper for every 26,000 Iraqis.
But the numbers weren't the paratroopers' only obstacle. They also faced an entrenched and hostile militia organization, an inefficient local government and a breakdown in essential services for the population.
None of these problems have been completely solved yet. "We've still got a ways to go," Maj. Rutherford said.
But the accomplishments are starting to pile up, he added. The battalion has sent almost 200 criminals into the Iraqi justice system. People in the area are slowly beginning to look to the government for protection, rather than the militias. The economy is booming, thanks to improved protective measures at the markets. And the local government is starting to play a more active role, beginning at the neighborhood advisory council level, Maj. Rutherford said.
"I know that we've made a difference and made this area safer. Every time I go out, people tell me that," said Spc. Herrick Lidstone, a radio operator with Bravo Company.
The battalion runs operations out of Coalition Outpost Callahan, a fortress-like building that was once an upscale shopping center. The place was empty and abandoned when the paratroopers arrived, but it's now a constant blur of activity.
Day and night, the stairs are crowded with Soldiers either on their way out on a mission or coming in from one. A typically day might the Soldiers them handing out Tylenol and tooth brushes at a medical-assistance operation in the morning, doing detective work to track down members of a bomb-making cell in the afternoon, then kicking in doors on a full-combat raid at night.
"We ask them to do a thousand different things," said Maj. Rutherford, "and we ask them to do it every single day."
It's a steep learning curve, said 1st Lt. Andrew Smith, a platoon leader with Company C.
"When I leave Iraq, I'll have been a salesman, a cop, a politician and a school principal," Smith said.
Gaining the support of the population is the key to making the surge work, said Sgt. John Reed, a Company B squad leader. The people are the base that military, political and economic progress has to be built on, he said. "Without a base, without a foundation, you have nothing," Sgt. Reed said.
(Sgt. Mike Pryor writes for the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.)