Sadi Kalif (from left), IA Lt. Col. Thaer Jaued and Lt. Col. Kenneth Adgie, 1-30th Inf. Regt. commander, visit an SoI checkpoint at the outskirts of the Maskar bunker complex in South Rasheed May 14. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. David Turner)
FOB KALSU, Iraq, May 19, 2008) — “Democracy is a new thing in Iraq,” said Sadi Kalif, the newly elected chairman of the South Rasheed Community Council. “When Saddam was in power, there were no elections. They just pointed to a person and said ‘You are in charge’.”
After years of war and terrorist activity from insurgents and al-Qaeda in Iraq, the citizens of this area south of Baghdad are learning to trust the path of democracy. They are also discovering the process begins not at the top, but in their own neighborhoods.
Members of the South Rasheed Community Council met in Bejiya May 14, where they elected their new chairman and met with Coalition and Iraqi forces. Soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, responsible for the area for the past year, introduced the council to the incoming Iraqi Army commander.
Leaders on all sides acknowledged that progress in the area is only possible while strong security forces are in place.
“Al-Qaeda occupied this area for three years,” Kalif said. “It was like the Dark Ages … We had two previous elections, but nobody showed up because of al-Qaeda. If someone participated in the elections, they might get killed.”
This all began to change last year, Kalif said. Citizens in South Rasheed took notice of community councils formed by neighbors to the north in al-Buaytha. These councils worked with Coalition forces, in large part, to obtain basic services.
“Nobody from the Iraqi government came to us to find out what was going on,” Kalif said. The Rasheed nahia, the local governing body, was similarly uninterested, he said.
“When we defeated and expelled al-Qaeda, we were almost at square one,” said Capt. Neil Hollenbeck, commander of Company A, 1-30th Inf. Regt. Because of the infiltration of terrorists in the area, he said, government officials were either unwilling or unable to provide basic services.
With the void left in their government, some citizens resorted to illegally tapping water from pumping stations and electricity from power lines. The community councils were formed as a way for citizens to receive those basic services, as well as health care and economic help, Hollenbeck said. First, however, citizens had to make their neighborhoods safe.“Security is the baseline,” Hollenbeck said.
The main reason that Coalition forces were able to operate successfully in the area was the Sons of Iraq, a volunteer security force which keeps the roads in the region safe and discourages terrorists from returning.
“We know al-Qaeda left because of the Sons of Iraq,” said Lt. Col. Kenneth Adgie, 1-30th Inf. Regt. commander. Appropriately, the site of the May 14 meeting was the headquarters of the local SoI, which Kalif also leads.
After meeting with the council members, the incoming commander of the 6th Battalion, 25th Brigade, 6th IA Division, Lt. Col. Thaer Jaued, toured several SoI checkpoints in the area with Adgie and Kalif. Hollenbeck said he hoped the IA forces would have a similar relationship with the SoI as Coalition forces enjoyed.
“The first thing [Jaued] did was listen to everyone,” Hollenbeck said. “He emphasized that the SoI will remain a security force and will work with the IA the same way as they work with Coalition forces. Based on what I saw at the meeting, I have great hope that they will work together very closely.”
Kalif said the area’s citizens have been wary of Iraqi Security Forces in the past because Iraqi Police have arrested and detained people for possible ties to terrorism.
“We need to rebuild the trust between the people and the Iraqi Army,” he said.
Kalif, a former IA officer himself, was encouraged by his meeting with Jaued.
“I told him that he should start by building trust with the people as the [Coalition forces] have done in this area,” Kalif said. “When the [Coalition forces] came, people were scared. But then they found the American Soldiers to be good people. Now any Soldier is welcome in any house in the area. I want Iraqi officers to do the same.”
Until connections to the Government of Iraq are fully restored, Kalif said, the IA will have a vital role to play in the region.“One day the [Coalition forces] will leave and we need the Iraqi government to support us,” he said.
Hollenbeck said IA will succeed in the area as long as they find creative ways to solve problems which persist in the community.“These are connections we’re trying to build with the Iraqi government, and maybe those Iraqi Army officers can do that more efficiently than we can,” Hollenbeck said.
Hollenbeck was optimistic about the council’s chances for success.
“It’s going better than I ever expected it to,” he said. “After what I saw today, there’s a much greater chance for the council to grow as a governing body.”
As the new council chairman, Kalif has many challenges, but he is armed with ideas to address them. In addition to repairing infrastructure and encouraging business growth, he wants to secure funding for a new soccer field to provide youths will an alternative to violence.
“Now I have many things on my shoulders,” he said.