Report from the Triangle of Death

What's working in Iraq, what's not, and why.

US army bloody gd 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
US army bloody gd 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
In 2004, the area south of Baghdad - with apexes at Mahmudiyah to the north, Yusufiyah to the west and Iskandariyah to the south - was called the Triangle of Death.
Next to Anbar, it was considered one of the most dangerous places in Iraq. Prior to 2007, it was only occasionally swept by US forces and left to the Iraqi army who, more often than not, found themselves hunted by rather than hunting insurgents.
But beginning in June, 2007, following the progress in achieving security in Baghdad itself, US forces began moving into the surrounding areas including the Triangle of Death. Leaving the larger camps, US forces redeployed into smaller combat outposts and patrol bases. From there they could get closer to the local population, control the routes into Baghdad which were used to smuggle in munitions, and strike at al-Qaida cells and safe houses.
By July, there had been enough progress in Operation Marne Torch for Major General Rick Lynch, commander of Multinational Division Center and the 3rd Infantry Division, to look past combat operations into reconciliation and reconstruction - even as the fighting continued.
ON NOVEMBER 2, 2007 the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) arrived on station within this formerly notorious area, commanded by Colonel Dominic Caraccilo, as part of Task Force Marne.
The task force was responsible for operations in the areas south of Baghdad.
By this stage things had quieted down considerably from six months before. One indication of how much the situation had improved was that 3rd Brigade Combat Team lost only one soldier in four months in an area where the previous unit lost 60 soldiers in 15 months. But while improved, things were by no means completely safe.
As blogger Bill Roggio wrote when he visited Arab Jabour in September of 2007, the area was still an "an odd mix of direct engagement with the local citizens and direct attacks on al-Qaida cells... fixed wing and helicopter strikes, mortar attacks, and air assaults on al-Qaida cells in one moment, while dealing with the concerned citizens and reconstruction projects the next."
Still dangerous, but quiet enough, Colonel Caraccilo thought, to provide a window of opportunity in which the 3rd Brigade Combat Team could consolidate gains and concentrate on improving governance and essential services within the area. As they took over each of their predecessor's 14 forward operating bases, the brigade took stock of the situation in each. The challenge common to all was how to convert the 20,000 Sons of Iraq, a force begun by the brigade's predecessors into either the Iraqi Army, Iraqi Police, or some other economic opportunity.
As matters stood they were in transition.
The Sons of Iraq had either been insurgent sympathizers or had sat on the fence. They had now thrown their lot in with the Coalition; and the problem was to get them out of transition and firmly into the structure of the Iraqi state. The combat team walked deliberately into a risky situation with the Sons of Iraq (SOIs), some undoubtedly former enemy, standing guard on the roads. Caraccilo knew he had to transition those SOIs into Iraqi security forces or risk some of them reverting to their former freebooting ways.
BASED ON the experience of his two previous deployments to Iraq, Caraccilo initially had doubts about whether the Iraqi security forces could stand up fast enough to absorb the SOIs who had become "reconciled" to the government. But to his pleasant surprise the Iraqis were more than up to the task. Third Brigade Combat Team, partnered with an Iraqi brigade led by the redoubtable Brigadier General Ali, soon found that it could "lead from behind" as the Iraqis took the lead in maintaining security.
With this process in place, 3rd Brigade could realistically hope to create a sustainably secure environment. But Caraccilo was keenly aware of the need to make progress in the key areas of economic development and political stabilization. Without prosperity and functioning government the security gains would remain unstable.
FORTUNATELY the unexpected competence of Iraqi security forces allowed the brigade to reassign some of their units to reconstruction. It was a task at which they proved effective. Caraccilo felt his officers and NCOs were well equipped to figure out solutions to governance problems and identify economic opportunities. After all, generic problem-solving skills were not in short supply in the Airborne. As to the more esoteric subject matter skills - such as in agriculture or poultry-raising since the area was predominantly agricultural - those could be supplied by experts on the embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (ePRT).
EPRTs were deployed by the State Department but lived with the troops.
Yet just as with the SOIs, long-term success hinged on being able to create institutions which could sustain the economic and political gains. Simply helping farmers raise crops and chickens in Iraq was not going to be enough.
Caraccilo aimed to use developments at the grassroots to push the wider reconciliation agenda. The population was the prize. And unless the brigade could both win them over and mobilize them to build further stability any progress would be temporary.
Just as the SOIs had been institutionalized within the Iraqi security forces, local economic initiatives had to be sustained by improvements in Iraqi governance. Otherwise neither security nor economic development would last long. But the key to improving governance required a component the brigade itself could not provide. Some way had to be found to move leaders who proved themselves at the grassroots level into public office the way SOIs segued into the Iraqi Army. The obvious way was to elect them into office. But the biggest obstacle to this development was the Iraqi electoral law itself.
ELECTIONS at the district and provincial levels currently followed the "closed party list" system in which candidates running for office had to be chosen from lists provided by political parties. The system was designed during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom by UN advisers who ruled out voting by geographical location for a variety of technical and political reasons.
But while it might have been appropriate in the early days, the system had led to the creation of factions in Baghdad based on sectarian lines. The effect was to magnify sectarian differences rather than reduce them. The voting system had become a hindrance to consolidating hard won gains. It shut the window just as the population was prepared to move through it. All the brigade could do was hope politicians in Baghdad would enact reforms while the window of opportunity was still open.
THE SITUATION illustrated the challenges facing the process of reconciliation. The impetus for building both the security and institutional foundations of Iraq was being generated from the grassroots. Pressure from the bottom could take the form of priorities, where a community might prefer health services when Baghdad might mandate trash collection. But those priorities could only be sustainably articulated through the electoral process, and that process was broken.
To generate an effort at the local level, company commanders, like Capt. Tom Goettke of 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, planned and executed their own governance in the form of farm co-ops and community elected representatives to support nahias. These elected forums were the first step in providing the Baghdad official government an example of electoral success.
Task Force Marne and the 3rd Brigade Combat Team had brought things a very long way from the days when the area was dubbed the Triangle of Death. Some key steps were still missing; but for the present all that could be done was to push the politicians in Baghdad from the bottom to take those final steps as soon as possible, before the window of opportunity closed.
MUCH OF Iraq was in a position very similar to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team with momentum on the ground which they wanted to translate into institutional change. Real reconciliation was waiting to happen on the ground, but will have to wait a little longer. Although the Iraqi parliament passed an electoral reform law designed to eliminate the UN-designed closed party list distortions that left Kurds and Shi'ites with disproportionate power over Sunnis and made it difficult to remove corrupt local leaders - precisely the thing Col Caraccilo hoped for - the law was vetoed by Iraq's three-member presidency council at the urging of the Shi'ite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. What it disliked most, according to the International Herald Tribune, was a provision in the new law that would let the Iraqi prime minister fire provincial governors; a power which could threaten its power base. The veto sent the measure back to parliament, in recess until March 18. While US officials still felt that the law was only momentarily delayed, partisan politics had already shown how obstructive it could be.
EACH PASSING week forced commanders on the ground, like those in the former Triangle of Death, to cleverly improvise even as Baghdad's partisan politics delayed the passage of the laws necessary to consolidate the gains of the surge. And while units like the 3rd Brigade Combat Team could keep the lid on, every delay raised the risk that stagnation would provide an opportunity for trouble to break out again. In the same week the veto was passed 64 pilgrims were killed by attacks to the south of 3rd Brigade Combat Team's area, including the 74-year old chief of the Iraqi Journalists' Union, Shihab al-Timimi.
Caraccilo's soldiers had done their best. Now the politicians would do their worst.
Fernandez writes at the Belmont Club