In Iraq, managing the peace may be more difficult than winning the war

By James Kitfield

April 18, 2003

V CORPS TACTICAL HEADQUARTERS, BAGHDAD-Just south of this capital city, on April 12, the convoy carrying the V Corps headquarters staff snaked slowly past the charred remains of an Iraqi T-72 tank that was blocking half of the main road through the town of Mahmudiyah. And then the convoy stalled altogether as the townspeople swarmed around the military vehicles in something akin to a warm embrace.

Children by the hundreds shouted and waved, flashing the thumbs-up sign. Hoping for candy or even a friendly wave, the children were drawn irresistibly to the open windows of the American Humvees and trucks. Men and women in traditional garb jammed the sidewalks, jostling for a closer view of this strange army that seemed to appear out of nowhere from the desert. In a doorway, an old man in robes, his white beard framing a weather-beaten face, returned a wave with a knowing half-smile.

And even as the Iraqi throng gathered closer, and as U.S. soldiers snapped photos of this long-anticipated moment of liberation, an unseen voice cut through the euphoria like a knife.

"Fuck you!"

Suddenly vigilant again, U.S. troops scanned the crowd. One American soldier noticed a sullen young man on a balcony, making a pistol with his bare hand and aiming it at the Americans in a universal gesture that needed no translation. Another local was seen talking rapidly into a cellphone and scanning the length of the convoy, as if counting its numbers. Another soldier saw an Iraqi man kick a child in the head in punishment for having cheered the foreign troops.

In the cab of a U.S. Army transport truck, Master Sgt. Timothy Westbrook's grim expression reflected an increasingly common epiphany among U.S. troops, as one more soldier came to understand how a warm welcome can turn threatening in a Baghdad minute. Unseen beneath his truck window, Westbrook, a friendly but no-nonsense military brat from Jacksonville, Fla., readied a SAW (squad automatic weapon) machine gun in one hand, and unholstered his 9-mm handgun with the other.

"I can assure you," said Westbrook, "I wasn't taking any damn pictures."

After the convoy exited town, the entire incident might have been written off as a case of missed cultural cues and frayed nerves, except for this fact: The next day, on April 13, 19 U.S. soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division were wounded-and six hospitalized-in a grenade attack in Mahmudiyah.

Capt. David Waldron, as a company commander for one of the first units into Baghdad, the 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, almost paid dearly for his own epiphany. Riding at the head of a column of M-1 tanks, Waldron was waving to a crowd of smiling Iraqis who greeted his unit as liberators. "Then out of nowhere, a rocket-propelled grenade hit us from the rear," said Waldron, sporting shrapnel wounds and a bandaged hand. "That's kind of a microcosm for the kind of situation we find ourselves in right now."

Between War and Peace
While the American public exults over the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime and the end of the war-so declared on April 14 by the Bush administration-Operation Iraqi Freedom is already a week into what may well prove to be its most perilous and critical phase. Few ever doubted that U.S. forces would handily defeat the Republican Guard and Iraq's conventional forces. The key imponderables to the campaign were always the reaction of the Iraqi people to the war and the presence of U.S. troops, the cost in national treasure and in the lives of U.S. service members, and America's ability to lay the groundwork for a transition to democracy in Iraq. The answers to those questions now hang in the balance, and may well hinge on the events of coming weeks.

With the unexpectedly sudden collapse of Saddam's regime in Baghdad, for instance, the U.S. military found itself still in a combat posture and struggling to make the transition to the "Phase 4" tasks of providing security, delivering humanitarian aid, and stabilizing a traumatized society. At least initially, that transition has been hampered by the same difficulties that confronted combat operations-long supply lines, stretched-thin forces, and a hard core of determined enemy irregulars who have kept Baghdad and other parts of the country teetering precariously somewhere short of all-out war, but a long way from a secure peace.

"The collapse of the regime in Baghdad happened faster than anyone anticipated, so we're in that inevitable gap between war-fighting, when you want all your trigger-pullers and ammunition up front, and stability operations, where the focus is on civil affairs and humanitarian assistance," said Col. Stephen Hicks, the operations chief for V Corps's Tactical Headquarters, known here as the TAC, which manages Army maneuver forces and military operations in Baghdad. "We're bound to struggle in that transition period."

At this early stage, U.S. forces are still pondering whether the toughest fighting is actually over, or whether Iraqi irregulars and their foreign helpers have paused to regroup for a campaign of guerrilla warfare and terrorism. Until that situation becomes clearer on the ground, U.S. troops will keep one hand on their weapon and the other on a bandage or humanitarian relief packet, a state of purgatory somewhere between war and peacekeeping that represents a moment of maximum vulnerability.

"We're trying to get soldiers to transition from a wartime mind-set of shoot-whatever-moves to providing assistance to the civilian populace, and during that period it will be more difficult to keep the bad guys at bay," said Hicks. "There's a real potential for unnecessary casualties on the parts both of our soldiers, as well as Iraqi civilians. So we realize this is a very critical phase, and we need to make this transition fast or we'll alienate the local population and quickly wear out our welcome. If we get this phase of the campaign wrong, we could win the war and lose the peace."

The Regime Collapses
In retrospect, the Iraqi war may have ended with a secure radio transmission on April 7 from Col. David Perkins, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade. Upon driving into the heart of downtown Baghdad that day for what the Army called a "thunder run"-a kind of strike-and-withdraw raid-Perkins and the 2nd Brigade met surprisingly light resistance. Soon, they found themselves occupying the presidential palace and city center. Once there, they decided to stay for the night.

"Colonel Perkins essentially told his commander that if 2nd Brigade could hold out through the night, then he thought the war would be over," said a knowledgeable source. Throughout that first night, 2nd Brigade fought off a furious counterattack from the eastern side of the Tigris River by Saddam's Special Republican Guards-first by bridge and then by boat-and it lost two U.S. soldiers keeping its forward forces resupplied in the city center. In the morning, however, 2nd Brigade had held its ground, where it remains to this day. The war was essentially over.

Although Pentagon officials would not declare victory for days, V Corps's commander, Lt. Gen. William Wallace, called the war over during a casual conversation on April 11. "You heard it here first," Wallace said. "The Iraqi regime is finished, and the Iraqi army has disappeared."

The rapid collapse of Saddam's regime initially caught U.S. military leaders off guard. Ironically, this fast turn of events exacerbated the vulnerability inherent in a war plan that from the beginning had relied on speed and agility to compensate for lean forces and the "just-in-time" delivery of supplies and reinforcements. Col. Tim Regan, commander of the 308th Civil Affairs Brigade attached to V Corps and one of the most senior civil-affairs officers in Iraq, explained it this way: "In the beginning, the war plan called for a rolling start to stability operations as soon as maneuver forces had cleared a region. But because we started the attack before all the forces were in theater, our strategy evolved into toppling the Iraqi regime as quickly as possible employing 'economy of force.' That's a nice way of saying we didn't have enough forces on hand."

As a result, he added, the 308th is manned at less than a third of its normal strength of civil-affairs officers. "Because the top priority was winning the war and keeping civilians out of the battle space, neither I nor anyone else in the civil-affairs community had the resources available in theater to meet the immediate humanitarian needs."

Once again the determined resistance of a relatively small but fanatical band of Saddam loyalists and anti-American Islamic fighters slowed a war plan that was premised on speed and a minimum of massed forces. Seeing continued sporadic attacks on U.S. forces, and lacking sufficient troops for securing civilian areas, U.S. commanders had to postpone the assessment of humanitarian needs by civil-affairs teams. The continued lack of a secure environment across all of Iraq also largely denied U.S. commanders the assistance of numerous private relief organizations.

"The expectation of senior leaders was that once the regime fell, Iraqi forces would lay down their arms and civil-affairs teams could go through Baghdad very quickly, assessing how to bring power, water, and food distribution back on line," Regan said. "In that sense, the Fedayeen [Saddam] and terror groups definitely interfered with the smooth transition from Phase 3 combat to Phase 4 stability operations, because the situation is still not secure enough for us to go out and make assessments without security forces, and there aren't enough troops to go around. Because of the continued fear of reprisals from these Saddam loyalists and terrorists, the Iraqi people have also been slower to step forward and help us."

Although it may seem counterintuitive, U.S. military officers say that the relatively small number of American ground forces given the size of Iraq-and the lack of significant coalition ground forces other than the British-is likely to be felt more acutely in the transition and stability phases of Iraqi Freedom than during the war itself. During combat, U.S. fighting doctrine calls for commanders to concentrate their forces on specific strategic pressure points. In the early stages of the war, for instance, the main U.S. Army force bypassed many cities in southern Iraq in its steely determination to take the fight rapidly to Baghdad. During stability operations and peacekeeping, on the other hand, a broad U.S. troop presence may be desirable at administrative buildings, hospitals, and even strategic road intersections throughout the country. When those troops are stretched thin, secondary priorities-such as guarding the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, which was looted of centuries' worth of valuable treasures in the days after the regime collapsed-fall by the wayside.

"In combat operations, we tend to focus our forces on decisive centers of gravity on the battlefield. But in stability operations, there is no one center of gravity," said a senior military source in Baghdad. "You have to spread your forces out to each city, and within each city to various facilities to get the civil administration, schools, hospitals, and other essential services going again. In that environment, you find that a handful of bad actors can influence a pretty sizable city and tie down a lot of troops."

Few Troops, Too Few Leaders
Further complicating the situation in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq is the lack of a governing authority or leader to replace the deposed Baathist regime. The Bush administration, hoping for the natural emergence of an Iraqi leader with substantial internal support and legitimacy, has so far resisted naming an interim leader for Iraq, or even describing its vision of how the country should be governed until democratic processes and institutions can take root. No Iraqi leader emerged with a clear mandate, for instance, from a U.S. Central Command-hosted meeting of potential candidates held in Nasiriya on April 15.

Meanwhile, the initial U.S. authority designated for Iraq, retired Army Gen. Jay Garner, the head of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, remains based in Kuwait because of the continued security threat in Baghdad. The result has been a palpable sense of drift and a power vacuum, in the capital and elsewhere, that has predictably been filled by looters and factional ethnic and religious leaders. Even neighbors with competing agendas could potentially step into the void.

"I think the problem is largely that you have to go down the list of Iraqi officials pretty far to find someone who you might want to step up and lead," said a senior U.S. military source in Baghdad. "But the lack of a ruling model or clear understanding of who is coming behind us to set up an interim administration and governing structure has certainly complicated the situation. I'm concerned we may see other countries or independent organizations and actors move in and try to seize power and fill that vacuum. We've already fought Palestinians, Lebanese, and others in this war. Some of the hardest fighters we've faced have been Syrians. So defeating the Republican Guard and toppling Saddam's regime in Baghdad were necessary prerequisites, but probably not sufficient to fully set the stage for stability in Iraq."

The job of staving off power grabs in Iraq, and seeing to the immediate needs of Baghdad's population of more than 5 million inhabitants, has thus far fallen mainly on the same shoulders that knocked Saddam's regime from power. Luckily, many of the front-line units that have taken control of significant portions of the country-including major elements of the 3rd Infantry Division, the 101st Airborne Division, the 82nd Airborne Division, and the Marine Expeditionary Force-have in the past few years conducted peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan, Africa, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Once eschewed by senior uniformed leaders as beneath the military, the job of peacekeeping and nation building has become virtually second nature to this new generation of warrior-administrators.

In Iraq, "we'll eventually emerge into the clear in terms of who is in charge, but right now we're in the fog with a system that is still emerging," Regan said. "In the meantime, I make my recommendations and suggestions on civil-affairs issues mainly to the brigade commanders in their particular sectors. Those military commanders are the ones who are running the city."

Mayor Of Baghdad
The temporary "mayor" of northern Baghdad is a wiry man named Dan Allyn, small of stature with piercing dark eyes and a disarmingly direct manner. Allyn, the commander of the Army 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division in northern Baghdad, has an office that consists of a room without an outside wall in a half-constructed house strewn with rubble. The nearly unobstructed view from his foldout desk is of a nearby mosque with towering spires and palm-tree-lined gardens. Virtually every shed and structure between Allyn's office and the mosque contained a hidden arms cache of rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds-fallback positions for Iraqi fighters in one more aborted "mother of all battles." Just now, Allyn is wondering how to dispose of the depot's worth of explosives without blowing anything else up in Baghdad, or without further frightening his already-nervous constituents.

"We're trying to do something every day to make the people of Baghdad realize we're here to try and help them," said Col. Allyn. As part of that campaign to win over residents, 3rd Brigade engineers and troops have repaired the local water treatment facility, liberated a water bottling plant, and reopened a closed school. They are still working to turn the electricity back on for this northern section of Baghdad, which locals say has been without power for more than a year.

In the process, 3rd Brigade officers are learning to negotiate the labyrinth of local customs and norms of Arab culture with the aid of Special Forces detachments, a handful of paid interpreters, and a few soldiers from the Free Iraqi Forces, a group of exiles who have re-entered the country. Rather than become embroiled in disputes over the ownership of a cow or goat, for instance, U.S. commanders are using contracts to encourage local leaders to take charge of their districts. Contracts, they say, honor the semifeudal tradition of the region, where largesse is dispensed through the auspices of local elders or sheiks. They have also learned that decades of brutal dictatorship have wrung the initiative out of workers and contractors. Iraqis, as a result, need to be told in the most direct and specific terms exactly what is expected of them.

Along the way, both sides are slowly building trust. "A few days ago, some of the locals alerted me to an ambush that was being set for my troops, and we ended up killing 27 bad guys who were laying in wait," Allyn told Gen. Wallace during a recent site visit by the V Corps commander. Based on interviews with prisoners and local intelligence, 3rd Brigade identified many of the dead as foreign fighters and members of an organization called the Brotherhood of Islam. "The vast majority of the Iraqis are ecstatic that we're here, and the accuracy of the information they've provided us has been nearly 100 percent," Allyn said. "We've also seen them beginning to clean up their own streets and districts, which is a good sign. My primary concern now is to get the locals back to work."

When asked by a journalist how U.S. soldiers can transition so quickly from the kill-or-be-killed imperative of urban combat to caregivers and keepers of the peace, Allyn shakes his head. "You know, we didn't really expect Baghdad to fall as suddenly as it did, so the transition happened pretty fast, and this environment is actually harder than pure combat," said Allyn, who has commanded two peacekeeping rotations in the Sinai desert. The 3rd Brigade also finished a deployment to the Balkans just last year. "We have a lot of experience in these kinds of operations, and my guys fully understand the difference between hostile intent and noncombatants. That agility and adaptability of our young leaders and senior sergeants is the strength of the Army."

To drive that point home, Allyn directed visitors to one of 3rd Brigade's observation posts at a key intersection in Baghdad. The scene resembled an "open-house" day on a U.S. military base, with hundreds of curious and smiling Iraqi civilians milling about the M-1 tanks and other military vehicles, and peppering U.S. soldiers with questions in broken English. Maj. Jim Barker, who started classes in Arabic for his soldiers to distract them from homesickness, returned the favor by trying out his new vocabulary. Judging by the quizzical looks on the faces of the Iraqi children that surrounded him, Barker still needs to polish his linguistic skills.

Capt. Carter Price is a company commander in the 2nd Brigade. The one feature of the Iraq war that stood out most in his mind was the differing reactions among Iraqis to the appearance of U.S. troops. "We basically went from having a parade in our honor in Nasiriya, to being engaged in complete battle near Najaf, to a little bit of both in Karbala, to basically parades again in Baghdad," said Price. During that journey of discovery, Price and his men learned to look for telltale signs. For instance, if residents had earlier torn down or defaced portraits of Saddam, that generally indicated a neighborhood was safe. "We've also found that if Iraqi civilians are gathered around you in large groups, the situation is probably OK. However, if civilians avoid a particular spot or area, or scatter like a bevy of quail, you better watch out because you can be pretty sure there's a bad guy lurking there."

Before taking his leave of the 3rd Brigade, Gen. Wallace implored the soldiers not to let their guards down or stop watching each other's backs as they negotiated the shifting ground between war and its aftermath. "You have traveled farther, and fought more decisively, than any army in history," Wallace told the assembled troops. "I'm honored just to be in your presence."

Privately, Wallace asked Col. Allyn for an opinion from the front line on just what it would take to secure the peace.

"Sir, there may be a lot of bad guys out there simply trying to wait us out, but I don't think so," Allyn said. "The locals have been very good at pointing them out to us. I honestly believe that if we can get the power turned back on, we can keep the people on our side and Baghdad will not be such a hard nut to crack. The one other question I get asked most by the Iraqis is, what's in store for them?"

"You tell them that we'll get out of here," said Wallace, "just as soon as the Iraqi people are ready to take their future back into their own hands."

Final Roll Call
Even at a rear-echelon tactical headquarters in Iraq, there is always a white noise of explosions in the background. The constant noise is as much a backdrop to war as the squawk of radio static or the drone of running generators. In that white noise, there's the distant rumble of artillery, the percussive impact of captured enemy ordnance being detonated nearby, or maybe the thunder of a Patriot battery intercepting a missile overhead. But none of it is like the sharp crack of a high-explosive round landing inside your own perimeter.

On the morning of April 14, the proximity of that retort brought staff pouring out of the V Corps Tactical Headquarters tent on the grounds of Baghdad International Airport. The smoke plume of the nearby impact and the unmistakable urgency with which soldiers were running to the scene offered all the confirmation necessary that disaster had struck, although it was unclear by whose hand. Lying beside a Bradley fighting vehicle were the motionless figures of two U.S. soldiers as their friends and then medics fought desperately to revive them. Someone cried out the name of a soldier who by then was beyond hearing.

In the end, it was the hand of fate that dealt death to one of the soldiers. With no one even in the turret of the Bradley, the electronic surge of an ignition switch had ignited what soldiers call a "ghost round," and the 25-mm chain gun exploded and proved to be the bane of one of its own crew. At dusk on April 15, soldiers of C Company, 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry gathered to honor their comrade. They were joined by the members of the V Corps TAC that Charlie Company had protected on the long march to Baghdad. On top of a two-step platform, the fallen soldier's rifle was buried bayonet-down, with a helmet resting askew on its butt, the soldier's empty boots on the step below.

The soldier was 20 years old, probably not old enough to buy a drink back in his hometown of Rock Springs, Wyo. Yet as his tributes made clear, the young man had already found within himself the wellspring of fortitude and selflessness that brothers in arms rely on in a time of war. After the chaplain spoke and the formations bowed their heads in silent prayer, 1st Sgt. Mark Lahan strode before the simple platform of helmet, boots, and rifle for a final roll call.

"Specialist Ulrich!" Lahan barked.

"Yes Sergeant," Ulrich shouted, breaking from the formation to go and stand at attention before the platform.

"Private Knobbe!"

"Yes sir, First Sar!" Knobbe made it a formation of two.

"Private Szczublewski!"

"Yes, sir!" And then it was three standing.

"Private Mayek!" Silence.

"Private First Class Mayek!" Silence.

"Private First Class Joseph P. Mayek!"

As if in answer, a bugler blew the first piercing notes of "Taps," the infinitely sad refrain of loss set to music, and all the more poignant for being played so far from home. The "missing-man" formation of three soldiers wheeled on their heels and marched slowly away without Joseph P. Mayek, the 20-year-old who would never see 21. The strains of "Taps" lingered as the day's light began to fail.

The bugle's fading cadence of notes could be heard as far away as the 101st Division, which in the same 24 hours had lost two soldiers in a grenade accident and another to suicide. They echoed in the camp of the U.S. Marines in Iraq, where a marine died that day in another case of suspected blue-on-blue gunfire. They could be heard as far away as the 4th Infantry Division just arriving in Kuwait, where a soldier was killed in a vehicular accident on his way to Iraq. All in all, a bugler's lament to another bad day.

On April 15, the lights came on at Baghdad's international airport, and the uniformed temporary mayors of Baghdad report that it's only a matter of days before power is restored to parts of the city that haven't seen electricity for months. Very soon now, the international relief agencies will descend by the planeload. Before too long, the U.S. congressional delegations will begin to arrive as well, followed in short order by the masters of global commerce. Slowly, U.S. troops will fade into the background, and Baghdad will become the center of a new Arabian mosaic. With luck and great good fortune, Iraq will grow over time into just another bickering U.S. ally, thankful in its own way but impatient to see an end to the American presence.

In the meantime, it's very likely that the United States will lose more service members securing the peace in Iraq than were lost in the war. By the time the last members leave, in months, or years, some may not recall that this place had once been a den of tyranny, before the wild boys came and fought, and played "Taps" throughout the land.

By James Kitfield

April 18, 2003