Soldiers Win Hearts In Small Corner Of Baghdad

Saturday, September 22nd 2007, 3:29 pm
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD (AP) _ Six Humvees rolled into one of the poor neighborhoods that share Baghdad's northern fringe with groves of date palms, and school teacher Mustafa Hassan climbed out to tears, hugs and kisses.

Hassan had been detained by the U.S. military for five months on suspicion of involvement in insurgent activity, but his innocence was championed by an American paratrooper lieutenant and now he was being delivered home with respect.

In this remote corner of Baghdad, soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade, many on their third Iraq tour, are trying to leave their mark in a war defined as much by perceptions of conduct as by battlefield exploits.

Hassan's case illustrates the competing needs of quelling violence and reaching out to Iraqis.

Paratroopers are striving to be sensitive to Muslim culture, a return to the ``hearts and minds'' approach of the early days of the war when good will flourished before a bloody insurgency poisoned the atmosphere and put the Army's emphasis on combat.

Hassan got out of a Humvee a few yards short of his family's one-story house. Like a general on a Baghdad walkabout, paratroopers threw a security ring around him.

Neighbors were the first to spot the returned teacher. Then came the father, who wrapped Hassan in a bear hug. His mother rushed out of the house, but was so overwhelmed by emotion that she collapsed in the street.

A U.S. medic revived the 68-year-old woman and everyone walked together into the home.

Although it is the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, the family served chocolates, sodas and tea to the paratroopers while abstaining themselves, a gesture of gratitude.

The teacher was arrested by paratroopers April 4. They refuse to disclose why he was detained, but the family said Hassan was suspected of having links to a militia leader.

First Lt. Larry Pitts, a chubby 33-year-old on his third tour of Iraq, said he suspected Hassan was innocent soon after his arrest and began lobbying his superiors to speed up the investigation. Everyone who knew Hassan vouched for his good character, Pitts said.

``Things did not seem right because the family was educated,'' he said. ``It did not seem like a stereotypical insurgent household and I kept reassuring them (the family). I did not want them to think that if someone is detained by the Americans you never hear about him again.''

Even with Pitts' support, it took months for the military bureaucracy to give clearance for releasing Hassan. He finally got home last week.

``The first thing I did today was to look at the sky and see what the weather was like,'' Hassan said, sitting next to his mother in a living room filled with family, close relatives and the paratroopers.

Speaking to the crowd through an interpreter, Pitts sought to make amends.

``We talked to your headmaster and you will have your job back,'' the Fayetteville, N.C., native told Hassan. ``You will probably not recognize your school when you see it because we renovated it. You get two weeks off and then you'll have to go back to work.''

``Thank you very much,'' one of Hassan's five sisters, Wijdan, said in English.

The paratrooper's community relations didn't stop there. Pitts emerged from the home and began shaking hands with nearly everyone in the small crowd that had gathered outside.

He posed for a photograph with two girls standing next door. Men and women confidently approached him with requests and complaints. He took notes diligently.

``What we have to do sometimes is raid a home one day to arrest a suspect and come back the next to interact with the people living on the same street. That's a challenge,'' Pitts said.

Pitts and his men got back into their Humvees and rumbled away. The time for socializing was over, and the lieutenant's attention shifted to security for the Shiite neighborhood of Grayaat.

The 2nd Brigade has lost 36 soldiers since deploying in January as part of the 30,000 extra troops ordered to Iraq by President Bush. The brigade came to quell the capital's violence, but its soldiers are looking to more than their combat power to stabilize their part of Baghdad.

Some acknowledge the division earned a reputation for heavy-handedness during previous tours in Iraq, particularly in Anbar province west of Baghdad, a vast region that until a few months ago was the most dangerous part of Iraq for American troops.

People in Anbar bitterly complained about paratroopers kicking in doors during pre-dawn raids, roughly handling and humiliating men in front of women and children, making what were seen as arbitrary arrests.

Now the paratroopers are operating in what appears be a nationwide U.S. strategy of working with local people to bolster efforts to build paramilitary forces capable of fighting al-Qaida in Iraq terrorists, Sunni Arab insurgents and Shiite militiamen so U.S. forces can begin leaving.

After driving off from Hassan's home, Pitts picked up two Iraqi policemen from a joint Iraqi-U.S. station and, along with the Iraqi army officer, inspected potential sites for a new police station and five outposts to be staffed by local volunteers.

Lt. Col. David Oclander, executive officer of the 2nd Brigade, said a total of 1,300 volunteers have come forward and those who pass background checks will be trained and paid by the U.S. military a monthly salary of $300.

``We are willing to pay their salaries for six months, but they will later join the Iraqi police,'' Oclander said at Taji, the brigade's headquarters north of Baghdad.

Pitts, who doesn't seem to tire of offering an Arabic greeting to any Iraqi within sight, feels strongly about the effort to have local residents police their own communities.

``You should humanize yourself,'' he counseled one of the two police officers with him. ``Don't just walk past people and say nothing. Greet them and ask them how they are.''

The following day, a patrol of other 82nd Airborne troopers followed a similar approach.

``Don't smoke or drink water until nightfall,'' a sergeant warned his men in a briefing before heading out. It was a reminder not to offend local sensitivities during the holy month of Ramadan, when devout Muslims refrain from food, drink and tobacco from sunrise to sundown.

Arriving after sunset, the patrol inspected a joint Iraqi army-police checkpoint under an overpass guarding the strategic Muthana bridge over the Tigris. The paratroopers later visited an army checkpoint where soldiers had been admonished the previous day for sheltering from the heat inside their new, air-conditioned vehicle.

Next, the paratroopers headed to a busy outdoor market where 1st Lt. Jeremy Talliman of Walnut Ridge, Ark., the patrol leader, sipped black tea at a coffee house and then walked about on foot for a while.

Talliman and his men stopped at a house sitting alongside the Tigris. The owner was in, and the paratroopers quickly took positions on the roof and outside the one-story house to guard Talliman while he was inside talking to his host.

The owner, a contractor wearing a traditional Arab robe and walking in bare feet across floors covered by rugs of clashing motifs and colors, ordered his children to bring sodas, ice cream, sweets and fruits.

He personally served his guests as he occasionally yelled more orders at his children.

``I came back to see you because I enjoy your hospitality,'' Talliman told the man through an interpreter. ``It's an honor to have such distinguished guests in my home,'' came the response.

The man had a worried, even haunted, look. He gradually relaxed, but hardly smiled during the hour-long visit. In his early 50s, the man's identity cannot be revealed for his safety.

Talliman said he would see about giving the man a contract to pave one of the roads in the area. The man said he would be happy to accept work that is ``worth my while.''

Sgt. Andrea Pierce, a native of Canton, Ohio, then took over, using a mix of charm and a thorough knowledge of the district's social makeup to pump their host for information, munching on ice cream, an apple and sweets as she jotted down notes.

She wanted to know about the character of sheiks providing volunteers for the proposed security force, asked whether the man planned to give jobs to locals if he got the U.S. contract and probed to see how much he knew about happenings in the community.

It was time to go and the man asked Talliman and his soldiers to come back for an iftar _ the sunset meal Muslims take to break their fast during Ramadan.

The officer agreed, so the man asked how many would come and whether anyone had any particular dishes they wanted.

``Twelve,'' said Talliman, ``and any food would do.''

But a paratrooper in the adjacent room shouted out ``falafel.'' Pierce suggested stuffed grape leaves.

``Sar,'' said the man, using the Iraqi vernacular for ``consider it done.''