Sons of Iraq patrol recon – building relationships one night at a time

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Specialist Jarrod Ming of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division accompanied by two Sons of Iraq members, escorts a local resident to his home during a recent mission in downtown Tarmiyah. Actual missions with Sons of Iraq are very rare, but there is plenty of opportunity for junior soldiers to interact with Iraqi soldiers, police and Sons of Iraq members. Photo by Nathan Webster.

For the $300 a month the US pays the Sons of Iraq members in the Tarmiyah area, and across Iraq, there does come accountability.

Nightly post-curfew recon patrols by American soldiers from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division make sure the Sons of Iraq checkpoints are being manned as they are paid to be.

“It’s their town. They can sit at these checkpoints,” said Staff Sergeant Christopher Wessling, one of Alpha Company’s platoon sergeants. “That’s the one thing they can do.”

Wessling deployed to Iraq the first time in 2004, also with the 25th Infantry Division, when the Iraqi National Guard was being stood up for the first time, but were rarely able to help the US in any meaningful way. This time he hopes “hometown motivation” might make a difference. “They’re kind of like the Guardian Angels, except they’re getting paid.”

Still, he said the Sons of Iraq often aren’t much in the way of fighters. Often, the US soldiers operating from the Joint Security Station here will respond to gunfire or reports of attacks on Sons of Iraq checkpoints. When the Americans arrive, they discover Sons of Iraq members saying a car drove up and shot at them.

“So why didn’t you chase them?” Wessling said he asks. “Why didn’t you fire back? Where are the dead bodies?”

It’s a slow process. The hope is the Sons of Iraq members will at least stay at their checkpoints and not flee at the first sign of trouble.

Sometimes, however, the opposite is the problem. During one daytime incident at a traffic control point, someone yelled at and made verbal threats to Sons of Iraq members. Their response was to open fire in force – so much so that US soldiers at the scene thought a full-scale firefight was taking place.

“It was an inappropriate escalation of force,” said First Lieutenant Tyler Vest, who was on the scene and helped quickly calm things down. Given the amount of fire, he said it was surprising no one was hurt.

Violence continues to be a threat. While the area is statistically much quieter than the worst days of 2007, when al Qaeda-linked insurgents controlled the Tarmiyah region, those same insurgents still plot attacks. An Aug. 10 suicide attack claimed the life of a US soldier, Sergeant Kenneth Gibson, while wounding and killing many Sons of Iraq members, Iraqi policemen, civilians and at least two other US soldiers. Four other Sons of Iraq members had died earlier this summer. Security and vigilance remain the top priority for the American soldiers.

By night, Sons of Iraq members occupy dark, makeshift bunkers, many flying the Iraqi national flag. The men are dressed haphazardly, with no uniform except a reflective belt, though they all carry US-issued identification. A squad or two of US soldiers do the nightly patrols, talking to the Iraqis about concerns and problems.

“It’s 50 percent improved from where we started, when we had no relationship at all,” said Sergeant First Class Afa Taupo, a platoon sergeant. “We knew the leader, but not the guys at each position. We’re building relationships and we can get information from the people who are on the road.”

Tips can provide locations of weapons caches, IEDS, or those responsible for the funding and setting up attacks against coalition forces.

“Sometimes they have information about bad guys, and they can show us the house,” Taupo said. “And we can make sure we’re aware of their concerns.”

The concerns are often the supposed lack of weapons and ammo, neither of which the US provides. Here, in mostly Sunni Tarmiyah, there is plenty of distrust, if not open defiance, for the Shia central government. The last thing the US wants to be seen as doing is arming a force generally opposed to the government the US recognizes. And, given the amount of random gunfire at weddings or soccer victories, weapons and ammunition seem to be in abundance here.

The Sons of Iraq members often expect, or at least ask, the US forces to provide everything. Soldiers note with disdain that they are already being paid – with US money – and that should be plenty. The Iraqis aren’t shy. During a nightly mission monitoring the Sons of Iraq checkpoints, an Iraqi comes up to the group behind a Stryker, and says, with confidence, “food,” and taps his chest, as though he expects it to just be handed to him.

Taupo talks to the Sons of Iraq members while US soldiers provide security. Some lighthearted joshing takes place between the two groups, with a favorite joke – and it is clearly taken as a black-humored joke by both sides – being that many of the Sons of Iraq will be sent to Bucca prison for attacking the coalition.

“You’re Abu Ghazwan,” one soldier tells a Sons of Iraq member, pretending to identify him as a most-wanted al Qaeda in Iraq leader. “You go Bucca.”

“No Abu Ghazwan! No Bucca,” the Iraqi laughs.

On another patrol, Hashen Ali, the Sons of Iraq captain in charge of several checkpoints, said “the city is 90 percent very good, 10 percent bad,” an improvement from 2007.

Through Alpha Company’s interpreter, Ali said he and his men are proud “to do the best we can to keep Iraq safe.”

Like many of the Sons of Iraq members, he said he would like to join the Iraqi Army again someday. He said served in the Army before, as a staff sergeant and a driver in the Republican Guard.

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