Artillery unit patrols Baghdad's recovering streets

Ralph Peters:

IT may be the world's ugliest ice cream, a random mix of a half-dozen melting flavors swirled together in a chaos of chemical colors. But it's a hit at the Yarmouk market in the heart of Baghdad.

Much of the city - though certainly not all - is coming back to life. The optimism of the neighborhood entrepreneur who opened that ice-cream shop may be a better indicator of progress than another empty promise from Iraq's government.

And it's a good sign when a U.S. security patrol can make an ice-cream stop.

Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, the commander of the Multinational Division-Baghdad, joined the soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Field Artillery on Tuesday as they made the rounds of the Qadisiyah neighborhood and other stretches of Baghdad.

Gen. Fil doesn't walk, he prowls. Evoking a mountain lion that woke up hungry, he has the animal's alertness, observing everything around him on the move. He doesn't growl, though. A "new-school" commander forged by this war, he knows that you can't micro-manage a counterinsurgency.

Fil listens. Then he decides. And he gives his subordinates maximum freedom of action. He's the kind of commander under whom you want to serve.

The Red Dragons of 3-82 are a story, too. Artillerymen, they patrol the streets of a broad slice of Baghdad in a traditional Infantry role - and provide steel on target from their 155mm howitzers for six brigades strewn across a vast area of operations.

That versatility is one of the qualities Fil admires most in America's soldiers. Asked what years of conflict have taught him, the "big cat" swept a hand back over hair pressed flat by his helmet and wet with sweat before answering: "The incredible adaptability of the American soldier - he can turn a corner just like that."

AND the artillerymen have to be versatile. Although much of central Baghdad has begun to thrive again, the crazy quilt of neighborhoods they patrol still has its troubles. Those who knew the area pre-surge are impressed with the recent progress, but Gen. Fil and his subordinates know they still have a long way to go.

On the positive side, the "gated communities" approach, complete with security guards and controlled access for neighborhoods, has cut violence dramatically. The Red Dragons' sector hasn't suffered a roadside bomb attack since April; when a pair of drive-by shootings occurred during the recent Shia pilgrimage to Karbala, the locals were furious.

Given the chance to sound off to Gen. Fil, a local elder waved a forefinger and told him, "These killers are not from here! They are not from our neighborhood. We don't want these people here." The old man was surrounded by a vibrant market; he doesn't want to live out his remaining years on a street desolated by terror.

...

Seconded by his fellow elders, the old man who was so anxious to speak to the general looked to the Americans for help, not to his own government. He railed against the ministry officials responsible for electricity, for television and for health care - and he didn't stop there.

"These ministers steal! They send our money to Canada, to Europe. Because" - he slapped the back of a broken chair - "they know they will not sit in their seats very long."

The contrast between his enthusiasm for the American soldiers and his fury toward the al-Maliki government echoes the views of many U.S. officers. One told me straightforwardly, "Our biggest challenge is getting the Iraqi government to govern."

There's no way to avoid the truth any longer: The Maliki government is a failed government. But things have begun to work at the local and regional level. If Iraq's going to make it, the change may have to come from the bottom up.

...

It is what I have been saying for weeks. The bottom up approach is the one that is most likely to make a difference and that is most likely to change the government in Baghdad. It is interesting to see the soldiers take a break for ice cream. It is a win win deal. Spending money in the local economy encourages the Iraqi entrepreneurs and gives our forces a tie with the locals that can be invaluable in intelligence gathering. As the meeting with the angry old man shoes, his anger was not directed at our troops but at the actions and failures to act of others. You can tell that in this neighborhood, John Murtha would be the only American they would want to leave.

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