A pall of smoke lingers over the crowd by the time Lt. Col. Bradley Becker takes the stage. It's the morning of March 26 at a U.S. Army base near Qayyarah, Iraq, south of Mosul. More than 300 tribal sheiks, Muslim imams, police officials, Iraqi Army officers, regional bureaucrats and government engineers have gathered in a brand-new domed theater on the Halliburton-built compound of 2nd Battalion, 8th Field Artillery Regiment from Fort Lewis near Seattle, deployed here since October. They've come at the U.S. Army's invitation.
But that doesn't mean the Army trusts them. To get onto the compound and into the theater, the Iraqis must run a gauntlet of security checkpoints: They're questioned, searched, then searched again and provided ID cards and escorts. From the front gate to the theater, the armed guards -- from both American and Iraqi armies -- are as thick as camel spiders.
The show is scheduled to start at 10 am. But it's closer to noon before everyone has cleared security -- and by then, some of the early arrivals have smoked entire packs of cigarettes.
"I apologize for the delays," Becker says into a microphone. Behind him stands a U.S. Army translator. In the colonel's pauses, the translator steps forward and repeats in Arabic. Three hundred impassive faces turn from Becker to the translator then back to Becker, like animatronic Arabs at some kind of Disneyworld War on Terror ride.
"Your safety is our number one concern," Becker says.
"No kidding," mutters one Halliburton contractor hovering in the wings. "This is the biggest target in Iraq right now. Can you imagine if someone sneaked in a bomb?"
It's happened before. On Dec. 21, someone wearing a bomb strolled into a chow hall at a base in Mosul and killed himself, and 22 Americans and foreign contractors. As bad as that was, a bombing here would be worse, for the men gathered in this theater on this sunny morning are the key to progress in this contested region, which -- like much of Iraq -- has seen a spike in violence in recent weeks as insurgents attempt to destabilize the new Iraqi government.
Becker steps down. A fat swaggering man in the uniform of the new Iraqi Army muscles onto stage. He doesn't introduce himself. He doesn't have to. His name is Gen. Ali Abu Yasser, commander of the 102nd Battalion. In a place where strength means respect and respect gets things done, Ali is the strongest, the most respected and the most effective. At his command are hundreds of the best soldiers in the Iraqi Army. They man checkpoints and outposts on the highway to Mosul-Baghdad highway and its surrounding towns. And, increasingly, they're the front line in the fight against insurgents and terrorists in the area.
Like all of Iraq's fledgling security forces, they're also prime targets. Soldiers and police account for many of the 500 people killed in Iraq since the government formed on April 28.
"Capable of semi-independent operations," is how Maj. Kevin Murphy, of Seattle, rates Ali's soldiers. That's high praise coming from a staff officer with Murphy's standards. As Becker's operations officer, Murphy, 36, plans missions for all of 2nd Battalion's 300 soldiers. And on most missions, Iraqi troops accompany the Americans, literally tagging along behind the U.S. troops.
On one March 25 nighttime mission, a patrol of two Stryker armored vehicles carrying eight soldiers from Delta Co., 52nd Infantry, attached to the 2nd Battalion, links up with two Iraqi Army Toyota pickups packed with native troops armed with AK-47s. Into the sunset drives the patrol, the eight-wheeled Strykers throwing up massive trails of dust that blind and choke the Iraqi drivers and their human cargo. Outside Qayyarah, the patrol splits, the Strykers leading a pickup apiece to separate hilltops. With the vehicles idling, 2nd Lt. Tom Burns, 22, from Kearny, N.J., scans the black night with the infrared sights of his vehicles, looking for anything suspicious on the expansive, nearly lifeless desert.
Spotting a truck tearing down a remote road, Burns orders his soldiers into action -- and yells back for two Iraqi soldiers to hop inside the Stryker. Burns' vehicle flies down the hill, faster than any Iraqi Army pickup can follow, hot on the tail of a suspected terrorist, who probably has no idea that a million bucks' worth of hi-tech badasses from two nations is just minutes from running him off the road.
Or maybe he does. The pickup disappears from Burns' sights before he can get close enough to do anything about it. Somewhat disappointed, the crew heads back to its hilltop observation post. Burns and company may have failed to nab themselves any terrorists, but they're still doing important work here, perhaps without even realizing it. They may leave the Iraqi Army trucks behind, but they don't go anywhere or do anything without making native troops an important part of the effort. That they do it without thinking -- or at least without hesitating -- is evidence of real progress in the bloody two-year effort to return Iraq to its people.
All U.S. troops here work side by side with their Iraqi counterparts, though some do more than others. On March 27, 29-year-old Capt. Ryan Gist, from San Diego, and 1st Lt. Todd Cody lead a platoon from 2nd Battalion on a 12-hour mission that takes them from Qayyarah's bustling marketplace to its rusting oil refinery, its police stations and the homes of its most important men. They never fire their weapons. They spend much of the mission with their helmets in their hands and their rifles at their feet. Combat for their soldiers means sitting down with Iraqi police chiefs, tribal leaders and businessmen. It means sipping chai -- the Arab world's sweet hot tea -- and making conversation. It means making friends, winning trust, exchanging information and offering advice to Iraqis who are struggling desperately to take on security for a nation where two decades of tyranny have made many men into cowards.
One stop for Gist and Cody is the home of Sheik Ishmael, one of the richest and most powerful men in the Qayyarah area. A cigarette dangling from his fingers, Ishmael ushers the officers into a carpeted room adorned with plastic chairs and tables, where a boy serves chai as the sheik's family and associates gather.
"I consider you my brother and my friend," Gist says. And then he says that only by working together can U.S. and Iraqi forces make Qayyarah safe again. "We need you to tell us where the problems are."
Ishmael lights another cigarette, sips his chai and seems to consider the officer's plea. After all, he knows where the bad guys are in the area. He knows everything. But two years ago, Gist and Cody were his enemies. Now they're sitting in his home, drinking his tea, calling him brother and asking for his help. And outside, 22-year-old Spec. Harvey Blankenship, from Chehalis, is playing with his kids.
This is it. This is war. More than any firefight, raid or Air Force bombing mission, this is where the conflict in Iraq is decided: in the company of the men who really run this country. What Ishmael chooses makes all the difference.
He taps his ashes. He sips. Then he gestures with his cigarette and begins listing trouble spots. Gist smiles slightly. Next to him, Cody is furiously scribbling notes. It's not a terribly exciting event -- not "kinetic," in Army speak -- but it's progress. In Iraq in 2005, victory is boring. And with insurgent violence on the rise, even the most mundane victories are precious.
Back at the March 26 meeting, Gen. Ali surrenders the stage and the translator to Imam Ahmed Fathi, a local Sunni religious leader. Immaculately dressed in brown and white robes with a neatly trimmed beard and commanding presence, he's a perfect example of Iraq's powerful and charismatic imams. Men like Fathi have been a thorn in the side of occupation forces, calling on Muslims to resist infidel occupiers and issuing fatwahs against participating in elections. With Saddam Hussein's secular Ba'ath Party destroyed and Shiite Imam Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani leading the new government's biggest coalition, Muslim scholars have more power than ever. What Fathi says here could make the difference between success and failure in Qayyarah.
So it's with perceptible relief on the part of the audience that Fathi opens with this statement: "Islam is a religion of peace. To reach justice, peace and freedom for all our citizens, we have to put out heads together. We have to work together."
He urges local leaders to cooperate with U.S. and Iraqi forces. And he urges U.S. forces to help bring jobs to the area. "This is another way to fight terrorists."
Then, brushing off his translator, Fathi continues in slow, heavily accented English. "We call for peace, not for further war."
He sits to thunderous applause. Never one to sit while anyone's applauding, Gen. Ali lumbers back on stage and launches a long tirade against local leaders not doing enough to help the Army.
Leaving the meeting around 1 pm, 26-year-old Capt. Dan Florey, from Michigan, one of Becker's tech guys, sighs and rolls his eyes. "This thing isn't nearly over."
He's right. The meeting adjourns for lunch at Ali's chow hall -- where, Becker says, "The real work is done." Becker shares plates of chicken and rice with sheiks, shakes countless hands and hears everyone's concerns. One man pleads for help for a little girl with heart problems. Another complains that U.S. and Iraqi forces have arrested innocent men from his village. And several say more must be done to provide electricity and jobs. Becker says he'll do all he can to solve all of these problems. "I promised that as security improved, we would focus on improving quality of life. Well, when we started meeting last November, times were tough. But working together, things have gotten much better."
And they're still improving. Coming home from his March 27 mission, Gist is waxing lyrical about the future of Iraq when he gets a call on his cell phone. "This is Capt. Gist."
The caller's voice is barely audible to the passengers in Gist's vehicle. But the nature of his call is easy to judge from Gist's reaction.
His body tenses. His eyes go wide.
"I'll be there in one hour," he says as he hangs up.
He cheers. "We've got 'em!"
For weeks, Gist's unit has been chasing two suspected insurgent bigwigs. Earlier, he received a report that the suspects had been spotted at an Iraqi Army checkpoint. The caller, an Iraqi sheik, said he'd detained the men at his home -- and asked that Gist come arrest them.
Speeding down the highway, Gist is hopped up on adrenaline. "I've been to Afghanistan. I've been to Bosnia. But I prefer Iraq. These people were going to side with whoever was going to win -- us or the insurgents." Now that there's a perception that U.S. and Iraqi forces are winning, Gist says, more Iraqis are starting to help out -- and that phone call is proof.
Gist surveys the Iraqi countryside: yellow earth, blue sky, some green from scattered vegetation. Locals in cotton tunics wave from produce stands. Shepherds leading their herds stop along the road to watch the patrol speed past en route to one small victory in a war that has seen too few.
Gist smiles. "I love to see progress."
David Axe is a freelance writer from South Carolina. In March and April, he embedded with 2nd Battalion in Qayyarah. He is currently on his third trip to Iraq reporting for The Washington Times and The Village Voice.