SAMARRA, Iraq – Soldiers with B Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry walk through the streets, accompanied by two gun trucks. During the mission, time is made to speak with members of a youth soccer team and buy ice cream cones for grateful children.
Company leaders speak with merchants offering everything from watermelon to hubcaps. Virtually every resident stops and stares at the passing throng, most of them smiling and waving. After an hour on patrol, the Soldiers turn and head back to their forward operating base.
The situation would be unremarkable, if not for the location. Less than two weeks prior, anti-Iraq forces controlled Samarra and most of the residents stayed inside out of fear.
“We couldn’t have walked through this area a week ago without being shot up with RPGs,” said 1st Lt. Greg Longo, a B 1-14 platoon leader from Calumet, Mich.
But one impressive offensive and a hundred dead insurgents later, the streets of Samarra have been reclaimed. Daily missions by 1-14 help maintain security and help win over the residents.
Claims have been paid for damage to homes, and uniforms have been bought for a local youth soccer team.
“We’re winning over those folks that may have been borderline before,” Longo said. “It’s night and day as far as their reception toward us now and before.”
Sgt. Anthony San Luis, a B 1-14 team leader from Dededo, Guam, noted that barely a week prior to this patrol, Samarra residents were in fear of the Soldiers. After the main thrust of Operation Baton Rouge ended, Soldiers went scouring for remaining insurgents and many of the residents misunderstood the U.S. intent.
“When we were going into their houses, they thought we were going to kill everybody,” San Luis said. “We explained that we were just there to get the bad guys. We started passing out candy, playing with the kids. When they realized we’re not there to hurt, but to help, you could see the relief.”
And now, the Soldiers are welcomed. “We patrol, keep security, and we make sure any problems the civilians want to address, we solve or point them in the right direction,” San Luis said. “You see a big difference. They’re happy, giving us the thumbs-up, like in other places where we’ve established ourselves. It makes me really happy that I can help these people. This is a big step in changing how things are in Iraq.”
Private 1st Class Jim Torres, a squad automatic weapon gunner from Tacoma, Wash., said the security and the claims payments doled out by the U.S. have made a huge difference.
“The people seem to be a lot more receptive to us,” he said. “We get up, do a patrol in the morning and talk with the people, see how they’re doing, and ask if they’ve seen any insurgents. Once the fighting was done, the normal population started coming back. Before, everyone you saw was shooting at you. Now the people are glad to see you. I feel good about coming in and making the people better off.”
Torres noted that Iraqi National Guard members are also helping keep the new-found peace. “It looks like they’ve got it under control,” he said admiringly.
Spc. Robert King said he gets a lift from being able to make things safer for the people of Samarra.
“We know the average Iraqi hates terrorists as much as we do,” said King, a B 1-14 grenadier from Denver. “It’s better here now, and the people are coming back. The little kids are happy to see us. We’re just going out, talking to the people, handing out money to those with claims. We’re changing from fighting to winning hearts and minds.”
Besides bringing safety to the streets, there’s also the matter of rebuilding the dilapidated city. That’s where the civil affairs teams come in.
Local contractors are now bringing electricity and water to Samarra, providing supplies to schools and hospitals, and cleaning up streets, mosques, and playgrounds. The contractors provide updates to the 415th Civil Affairs unit on their progress and also bring up any needs.
“We also meet with the mayor and see what his needs are,” said LTC Kirk Fernitz, a 415th Civil Affairs commander from Lancaster, Penn. “We support the mayor and the city council. This is the go-to place for the mayor and contractors.”
The civil affairs team took just three days to get electricity to all of Samarra, and got running water to all by the outlying areas.
“We have lots of different projects, from life-sustaining ones to recreation,” Fernitz said. “We want to get the city back to normal.”
The office also handles claims, including cars crushed by tanks.
“We drove out to the site, asked ‘Whose car is this?’” Fernitz said. “They would hold up the keys. We asked them how much they thought it was worth.”
Not every disbursement is as dramatic, but all are helpful.
“People come if they have any damages,” Fernitz said. “They tell us about them, show us proof, and tell us what they think the proper amount is. If everything is legitimate, we give them payment right on the spot.”
With projects on tap for schools, hospitals, roads, and mosques, about the only thing not seen in Samarra these days are the insurgents. (Story by Sgt. W. Wayne Marlow, 1st Infantry Division Public Affairs Office)