Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Keeping the Peace

By Tom Hewitt, Photos by Jenny Canfield/UAF Journalism

COP COBRA, Iraq - On a sunny morning at Command Outpost Cobra, Lt. Col. Michael Kasales of the 1-25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team was mending fences.

“This kind of cooperation doesn’t exist anywhere else in Iraq,” he told the assembled Iraqi forces at a joint security meeting. “There can be peace and understanding, or it can turn into a fight.”

On the border between Iraq and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, Kasales and the troops of his 5-1 Cavalry Regiment have their work cut out for them, trying to massage egos and build relationships between Arabs and Kurds. It’s a daunting task even under the best of circumstances, and the soldiers are dealing with an active insurgency and infrastructure projects to boot.

As the meeting wore on, the magnitude of friction between the authorities became apparent. The Iraqi army and police forces complained of poor communication between the security agencies – American, Iraqi, and Kurdish – in the region, and a lack of trust between forces was a major bone of contention. Still, Kasales urged the meeting’s attendees to continue working together, telling them, “The example you are providing here is coexistence and peace for the future of Iraq.”

Kasales has worked hard to ease tensions in his squadron’s area of operations, pushing Iraqi authorities to set up joint checkpoints and operations with the Kurdish pesh merga militia forces. The pesh merga have been successful at maintaining order and security in Kurdistan, and both the Iraqi and American governments believe that cooperation between Kurdish and Iraqi forces is key to keeping the peace, especially in the volatile disputed zone that runs diagonally through northeast Diyala Province – the 5-1 Cavalry’s backyard.

Efforts to foster cooperation between Kurds and Iraqis in security operations have been successful, but it’s still a rocky road. At the morning security meeting, Iraqi police and army representatives had arrived in force, but the pesh merga were nowhere to be seen. At the meeting’s end, word arrived that the Kurds had been hassled at the command outpost’s gate, and – feeling slighted – turned around, blowing off the meeting.

“It happens about once every three times we do this,” Kasales said after the meeting’s end. “Sometimes it’s where people are seated at the tables. Personally, I think it’s silly, and I let them have my seat if they’ll take it.”

An uncertain future

In the Kurd-dominated town of Khanaqin, Iraqi Police Col. Mahmoud was quick to suggest that Kurd-Arab tensions are overblown. “There is no difference between working with Arabs and working with Kurds. He is an Arab, and I am a Kurd,” he said, pointing to the officer at the next desk. “We work together. We trust each other.”

“He knows how we [Kurds] suffered under Saddam,” Mahmoud said of Kasales. “We will be sad to see him go.” Still, he expressed faith that the situation will not worsen when Kasales departs in September. “I do not know who will replace him,” Mahmoud said, “But I have faith in the Americans. If he is going to be like Kasales, then we will trust him and we will work with him.”

The American soldiers from COP Cobra were less hopeful. “The Kurds and Arabs play nice while we’re here,” one said outside the dining hall that evening as he smoked a cigarette, “But as soon as we’re gone, all bets are off. They’re going to go right back to fighting.”

Back at the base, Col. Kasales reflected on the meetings between the Iraqi security forces. “You get everybody together like that in one room, and they always complain and moan about something – there’s always something they’re unhappy about. But just getting them into that room, even if they’re complaining – at least they’re not out in the streets, shooting at each other.”

He acknowledged that the transition to a new American unit in the region will be delicate. “We’ve spent a lot of time establishing these relationships, and these partnerships. When the next guy comes in, we’ve got to make sure he’s up to speed.

“Because if you’re not careful, you’re right back at square one.”