On Scene: Trying to Win New Iraqi Friends

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Just a dusty mile or so from where a fellow platoon leader was recently killed by a powerful roadside bomb, Army 1st. Lt. James Vansandt piles out of a Humvee and sets out with his Iraqi translator into the darkness toward the crowded main street of Musayyib, a ramshackle Shi'ite town set along the Euphrates River some 40 miles south of Baghdad. Robed men are gathered in clusters on benches and around tables brought out after the daily ritual of breaking the 12-hour Ramadan fast. As his platoon fans out into the shadows on both sides of the road, Vansandt strides toward the nearest knot of men beneath a sagging string of bare light bulbs, greeting them confidently with "asalaam ilikem" — peace be upon you.

Vansandt and his men are risking a nighttime foot patrol through Musayyib to gauge local support of a recent program enlisting volunteers from the town and surrounding villages into ad hoc militias supported and paid by the U.S. military. When he asks the Iraqi men how security is in town, they all smile and nod and chat among themselves excitedly. "Good. Good. Already we to go to the peace," says Salih Ibrahim, 50, an art teacher who speaks rough English and who tries to translate questions from his friends. Ibrahim says one region to the east of town still swarms with members of the Jaish al Mahdi — the militia loyal to anti-American Shi'a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which the soldiers call "JAM" for short. Ibrahim and others complain that the Americans shell the area regularly, reminding some of the men of the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

That's Vansandt's cue. The American bombs are the bad cop to his good cop routine. He tells them that the Americans shell the region because the JAM use it to launch rockets at the nearby U.S. Forward Operating Base Kalsu outside the nearby city of Iskandariyah. Only the Iraqis in the area can make it go away. "When the [local] sheiks get a [volunteer] program for Abu Jassim [the eastern zone uncontrolled by the U.S.], then we can stop the bombing," he says. "Tell the sheiks what you want."

Maj. Craig Whiteside, the battalion executive officer, said the success of the Sunni militias against al-Qaeda and Jaish al Islaimi on the west side of the river, where they say they have the last al-Qaeda cell in southern Iraq on the ropes, helped put a spotlight on Shi'ite extremists to the east, the battalion's main enemy in the region. It gives the Shi'ite volunteer groups a window of opportunity to take control of their own communities. "I think the Jammers were like, 'We've got 100% of their attention now,'" he said. "It keeps their heads down and limits what they can do."

Part of Vansandt's challenge as he threads through Musayyib's busy market sector is to out-sell a particularly tough JAM cell in a sector where he needs the citizen's patrols. His superiors say JAM has been threatening residents, and have even killed the entire family of a man who had worked with the Americans in the area. Braving that kind of intimidation is a lot to ask of volunteers, leaders say, but any gains made will be Iraqi gains that only they can win and hold.

"Basically, we're paying people to stop shooting at us," Vansandt mutters as his patrol finishes the trek through busy market stalls, past a troublemaking mosque and the local offices of Moqtada al Sadr's organization. Over several hours he's talked to dozens of men who all agreed that the local volunteer groups are working. And none has mentioned the killing of the three volunteers. But Vansandt says has no idea how many would participate in the fourth and final group he's trying to organize, one that would patrol a sensitive supply route. Nor does he know how many residents are just telling him what he wants to hear.

His men climb back aboard their Humvees and roll slowly back through the town, which has already emptied save for donkeys and dogs and trash. Winding through the dust along the river bank toward their base, the soldiers pass through several Iraqi police checkpoints and then through one more where three young men had earlier stood wearing civilian clothes and carrying Kalashnikovs — the newest local squad of concerned citizens. "Wave and smile if you see 'em, guys," Vansandt tells his men. "They're on our side."