At the Eye of the Storm in Baghdad

An interview with Col. Rick Gibbs.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

On a recent visit to Iraq, I was advised to speak with an American colonel at ground zero in the effort to secure Baghdad. There I spoke briefly with Colonel Rick Gibbs, who commands the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (the Dragon Brigade) of the 1st Infantry Division, responsible for perhaps the most volatile area in Iraq — the so-called Rashid Security District in Baghdad’s southern portion — east of the Baghdad International Airport and west of the Tigris River. The area covers about 58 square miles with an estimated population of 1.2 million — comparable in size to the city of San Francisco.

The district, while predominately Shia — and therefore heavily influenced by Jaysh al-Mahdi militia operatives and other special groups — also comprises a significant portion of Sunnis in Northeast Rashid, along with a large presence of al Qaeda Iraq and other similar splinter extremist groups. There are also Christian and Kurdish populations interspersed throughout Rashid.

So in some sense, if a violent area like Rashid can be stabilized, it perhaps offers a blueprint of reconciliation for Iraq’s various sectarian groups.

Right in the middle of this urban complexity — in such mixed neighborhoods as Doura (East Rashid), Amil, Bayaa, and Saydiyah, the Dragon Brigade has set up coalition outposts (COPs) and joint security stations with soldiers maintaining a 24-hour presence, in accordance with Gen. David Petraeus’ Baghdad Security Plan.

Since the arrival of the Dragon Brigade in March 2007, however, there has been a radical decline in violence, even at ground zero of Iraq’s explosive sectarianism. Murders have fallen from 553 per month to a tenth of that figure (anticipated for the month of October). IED attacks have fallen by half. The Dragon Brigade has overseen some $100 million in investment in Rashid commerce and infrastructure and there are now 900 businesses open. Something quite significant is going on, and in the United States we aren’t exactly sure what to make of it.

In that context, I recently asked the Dragon Brigade commander Col. Rick Gibbs, to expand on our conversation in Baghdad with a more formal interview about the challenges and hopes for this once infamous suburb of Baghdad.

Victor Davis Hanson: Americans seem confused, if almost stunned, by the sudden, unexpected good news coming out of Iraq, especially in areas like Rashid that were at the center of violence. What happened? What exactly explains the turn around — Iraqi exhaustion with the criminality of the militias, improved U.S. tactics and numbers, or a combination of these or other factors?

Col. Rick Gibbs
Col. Rick Gibbs: First of all, I want to say thanks for showing an interest in what the Dragon Brigade is doing in Southern Baghdad and taking the time to help explain it to the American people.

Now, to answer your question about what happened: There are a variety of factors contributing to the success and progress we’re seeing here each day in the almost nine months since we began our operations. Increased coalition and Iraqi Security Force presence in the form of Joint Security Stations and Coalition Outposts has allowed us not only to more effectively coordinate our efforts with our ISF counterparts, but to gradually earn the trust and respect of the Iraqi citizens of the Rashid District as well.

It’s a real tribute to the soldiers and leadership, and you can certainly draw a distinct correlation between the reductions in violence, which is down about 60-percent across the board since we arrived, to the enormous efforts our troops are making each day, seven days a week.

Hanson: How do you see the tactical success that Dragon Brigade has had since March translating into long-term strategic stability? What would be necessary for the growing calm to continue permanently? 

Gibbs: The first thing that comes to mind when you talk about long-term strategic stability is the progress our Iraqi Security Force counterparts are making in this fight. We work very closely with Iraqi army, National Police, and Iraqi Police, and we’ve seen improvements in each since we started working and training with them. That said — there is still much work to be done for each branch of ISF to get them to where they will be comfortable and proficient enough to earn the trust and confidence of the Iraqi people.

For them to be successful over the long haul, they must continue training, receive equipment, continue the recruiting efforts to grow their security forces, and most importantly — they need experience and professionalism to manifest in the form of support from the citizens they are sworn to protect. If you see those things, then there is no reason to think that they cannot handle the long-term security needs here.

Hanson: The Iraqi police and army are often criticized here in the United States as unreliable and as hopelessly sectarian. How would you characterize the evolution of these forces you work with and train in Rashid?

Col. Rick Gibbs with two soldiers from the Iraqi Security Forces.
Iraqi Security Forces and Gibbs

Gibbs: Yes, there are some valid criticisms out there, but you have to remember that standing up the Iraqi Security Forces is an enormous undertaking, just as you have in any organization with a large number of people in it; you have your good people and your substandard ones.

Of the three, the Iraqi Army, in my experience here in Baghdad, has been the most proficient and is the farthest along of the individual ISF formations. They have a good deal of experience and professionalism, and we haven’t seen sectarian problems with them. After the IA, the National Police is next, but we have had some challenges with the predominantly Shia makeup.

Finally, the Iraqi Police or IP — the ones whose mission is to conduct the law enforcement tasks that we associate with our police in America are behind the IA and NP in our operational area. They are short numbers and equipment, but we are actively addressing that with a current IP recruiting drive across the district that will double the roughly 2,500 IPs we currently have in Rashid. We’ve had about 2,450 candidates apply since we began our drive this month which is a good start to significantly increase the force of trained and effective station and patrol IPs working across the district.

We also have Iraqi Security Volunteers operating in the Rashid District. There are more than 2,000 of the ISV in place with more on the way, and like the Iraqi Police, they are assisting in helping to enforce the rule of law, and we feel that AQI is more vulnerable as a result of their efforts. By adding these volunteers to the ranks, the IP are more diverse and representative of the people they are sworn to protect. Our ultimate goal with the ISV is that they will one day officially join the ranks of the IP as paid law enforcement officials or another branch of the ISF.

Hanson: Any comments on the presence of foreign fighters in Rashid, either from Sunni countries like Syria or Saudi Arabia — or Iran? Is their presence overblown, or do they effectively organize, arm, and fund local Iraq terrorists?

Gibbs: I can tell you that we have received reports of foreign fighters operating in our area, and we have indicators of outside influence from Sunni and Shiite countries. What we have actually seen more of is foreign influence in the form of numerous captured Iranian-manufactured weapons and rocket caches. We also believe that some of the extremist groups are getting a significant amount of funding and training from foreign sources.

Hanson: Trying to stabilize an area the size of San Francisco is more than just a military enterprise; what type of experts, civilians or military, do your forces work with to restore the social fabric of the district?

Gibbs: That’s a great question. We have a variety of military, civilian, and even professional American law enforcement subject matter experts assisting us in not only making Rashid more secure, but in improving the overall quality of life for its citizens.

Our Brigade Special Troops Battalion has done tremendous work in managing and coordinating the essential services projects we have ongoing in our operational area. These cover a wide range of areas from water, electricity, sewage, medical clinic and school refurbishments, sanitation and trash collection, to infrastructure improvements, such as the rebuilding of roads, reinforcement and protection of marketplaces, and upgrades of government and civic facilities. All go toward making everyday life better for the Iraqis who live here.We’re also helping neighborhood and district governments to run efficiently thanks to the efforts of our embedded provincial reconstruction team, which consists of both members of the U.S. State Department and soldiers. They’ve helped teach strategies for running productive meetings, and are actively assisting in the development stimulation of the economy through a carefully managed micro-grants-and-mentorship program with business leaders and commercial enterprises across Rashid.

We also have Iraqi cultural advisers who work hand in hand with us to further enhance our understanding of Iraq and the people we’re coming into contact with each day. The old saying that knowledge is power is especially true in this environment, and one act or event on our part that could potentially offend host nation sensibilities is the kind of thing that our Human Terrain Teams and Iraqi Advisory Task Force personnel are helping us to avoid.

I’m extremely pleased at the positive direction we are going here in Rashid — our soldiers and leaders are magnificent! While I’m proud of the work the brigade has done, we also recognize that there is much to be done.

Hanson: Could you also give some idea of what the American forces under your command face? What has a typical day been like for an American twenty-something private under your command?

Gibbs: Every day brings challenges. We conduct what we call steady state operations, which involves operations and patrols that remind the citizens here that we’re committed to their security and overall well being. We don’t set patterns or become predictable in what we do, but a lot of what the soldiers accomplish is similar 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

What’s important for our infantrymen who are out in the more difficult areas, or “sectarian fault lines” as we call them, is to interact with the populace and conduct combined patrols and operations with their ISF counterparts to maintain the trust and good relationships they’ve built since day one.

FOB life is different, but also demanding. Our medics, mechanics, staff and support personnel also work extremely hard to make sure that those who are out there at the “pointy end of the spear” are well supplied, informed, and taken care of.

The bottom line is that we have a fantastic team here in the Dragon Brigade and I’m truly honored to be leading such great soldiers!

Hanson: Given the mixed populations of the Rashid district, does the chief challenge to the coalition now arise from Shiite militias or al Qaeda forces?

Gibbs: The challenges are different depending on where you are in the district, but we take the threats from any group or faction operating outside of the law very seriously. Obviously, the AQI are more entrenched in the Sunni areas, while in the Shia-dominated locales we see a variety of militias and special groups who are vying for power and influence. Regardless of who they are or what they represent, our approach is the same: if you are not working in the best interests of the elected government and the law-abiding citizens, then we’re going to go after you.
Hanson: After four years of hard fighting and terrible human and material costs, is there anything that you could say to the American people from your experience in Rashid that would encourage them about the results of their sacrifice?

Gibbs: I would just say that what the brave men and women of the Dragon Brigade are accomplishing here in southern Baghdad is nothing short of amazing. I like to say that “Our soldiers are our greatest ambassadors,” because it is absolutely true. I watch young captains, lieutenants, and sergeants who have but a few years in the army carrying on healthy, effective relationships with local military, government, religious, and tribal officials here that you would expect of people with years and years of service.

I want the American people to know that their most precious resource — your sons and daughters — are doing amazing things here and we are seeing the kind of progress that I hope I’ve successfully illustrated in the previous questions.

I also want to thank our families, family readiness groups, and communities in Fort Riley, Junction City, and Manhattan, Kansas. They have been a great source of support and inspiration for us in the time we’ve been deployed, and we look forward to the day when we can say that our time here is done and we can return home to those who have been there for us the most.

Finally, I want to thank you Victor for giving me the chance to answer your questions. America deserves to know what is going on here in Iraq, and elsewhere our soldiers are deployed in support of the Global War on Terror. I appreciate your interest and willingness to give me the chance to share some of what the Dragon Brigade has done and is doing to contribute to the fight.

©2007 Victor Davis Hanson

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