Soldiers Help Iraqi Neighborhood Councils Step Up

By Brent Williams

FORWARD OPERATING BASE FALCON, Iraq — The soldiers of Company C, 4th Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, a mix of armor and infantry, assumed responsibility for the majority of southern Baghdad’s Risalah community, an area made up of 12 neighborhoods and home to about 250,000 people, in October 2007.

The company’s third deployment to Iraq took the soldiers to the Iraqi capital’s Rashid district and introduced them to an area recovering from the violence and turmoil of Iranian-backed groups and other enemy operatives trying to impose their will on the Iraqi people.

Currently attached in Multinational Division Baghdad to the to the 4th Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, the “Cyclone Company” soldiers recently took a huge step in the right direction, their commander, Army Capt. Michael Berriman said.

Operations have changed significantly since his first deployment in 2003, through his second tour in 2005, and now near the conclusion of his third deployment, the captain said.

The armor officer from Springfield, Mo., explained that he saw the focus of efforts change from major combat operations of past deployments to increasing the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces and working to return normalcy to the daily lives of the Iraqi people.

“Our approach has always been that it is going to be a joint effort,” Berriman said. “The company has always included the Iraqi security forces, as my goal was to get the ISF involved because I knew that they would take ownership.”

During the past seven months, Iraqi security forces have taken ownership of their communities, and they’re good at it, he said.

“We got past that part involving ISF,” he said. “The next thing we did is start incorporating the neighborhood advisory councils.”

The Risalah community’s new neighborhood advisory council hall, collocated with two Iraqi National Police battalions and coalition forces at a joint security station, opened Oct. 26 to provide local leaders a venue where they can meet in a secure area and maintain direct coordination with their community, Berriman said.

Berriman has served more than two years as the Cyclone Company commander, and his career, like those of many of the company’s other soldiers, has spanned the many phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom, working through major combat operations to providing stability and support for the people of Baghdad.

“It has been a very interesting deployment, very challenging, and I think the soldiers of this company can walk away with a good feeling – a better appreciation for what they have done,” he said.

Risalah’s citizens started reaping the benefits of the improving security situation through programs that provide electricity to the neighborhoods and grants for Iraqi entrepreneurs to stimulate the local economy, said Army 2nd Lt. Daniel Gorczynski, Company C fires support officer.

Community events, such as school supply distributions and community medical engagements, are critical opportunities to get local leadership, Iraqi security forces and the people involved, he added.

“The [neighborhood advisory council] has the biggest potential for development, especially with civil operations in Risalah, because they are knowledgeable of the area,” Gorczynski said. “The power lines, generators, micro-generators and [essential services] in the area all belong to the NAC.”

The Cyclone Company soldiers recently started working with the council to gain Education Ministry support to refurbish the schools in the area, said Gorczynski, a native of Basking Ridge, N.J. The council also played an essential role in assisting with resettlement in Risalah, he said, adding that the new governance building in the Iraqi security forces compound provides a haven for Iraqis to discuss their problems.

The unit’s relationship with the neighborhood advisory council and the Rashid district council have helped to improve the security situation on the ground, said Army Staff Sgt. Herbert Smitley, a Company C mechanized infantry platoon sergeant.

In fact, said Smitley, a native of Waynesburgh, Pa., it is the best he has seen in his three deployments to Baghdad.

“We have a good relationship with the NACs, and that plays an important part in getting the Iraqi people to work with the U.S. forces and work with the people to get the [Iranian-backed groups] out and build trust,” he said.

Conditions in Risalah and Saydiyah changed drastically from the heavy fighting at the beginning of 2008, said Smitley, who re-enlisted during the deployment.

“I think that we’re closer than we ever have been in building a functioning government,” he said. “This year has been a complete success.”

Taking Iraqi security forces out on every mission, the company’s focus has been to push them to work to their maximum potential, said Smitley, who credited the Iraqi National Police with taking responsibility for their area of operations.

“We are taking a step back with the ISF, letting them work to meet the needs of their people,” he said. “A lot of our focus is to step out, step back and watch to make sure that they are doing the right thing.

“Overwatch for us means using their leaders,” he continued. “If they have one good leader per platoon, then we focus on that leader, mainly the lieutenants and high-ranking noncommissioned officers, forcing them to do more of the job.”

Army Staff Sgt. William Bailey, a Company C mechanized infantry squad leader, said he has seen a drastic change in conditions and quality of life for the people in Risalah.

“The people have returned to the streets, returned to their daily lives,” he said. “People are out; they are smiling and living their lives.”

Missions vary day to day for the armor company, Bailey said. Those missions include conducting cordon-and-knock operations, raids, security overwatch, market assessments and checkpoint inspections.

The Iraqi security forces gradually have transitioned into a leading role in providing security for their country, said Bailey, a native of Worland, Wyo.

The Cyclone soldiers, who primarily conducted patrols from their M2 Bradley fighting vehicles, now work mostly from Humvees and conduct dismounted patrols through the area, another indicator of continuing progress, Bailey noted.

As the unit looks toward the end of its 15-month deployment in December, Bailey said, the company’s soldiers and those who follow must continue to build on the progress.

“I think it is important to maintain the relationships we have built with the ISF,” he said. “We have to continue to work and use the ISF to help accomplish the mission.”

Army Staff Sgt. Joshua Mager, who worked on a military transition and training team for the Iraqi security forces in the Rashid district in 2005, said the Iraqi National Police have made great accomplishments since then.

Since the violence in Iraq subsided, the armor section sergeant and tank commander traded his M1 Abrams tank for a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle and assumed many of the duties normally allocated to an infantryman, he said.

While day-to-day operations remain the same, Mager said he takes pride in watching the national police grow into the lead, becoming more competent in the pursuit of the enemy and taking a more active role in their community.

“Now, to see the NP doing the same things that the Iraqi army did back [in 2005], I think we have made great strides and progress in their security forces,” the Statesboro, Ga., native said.

“The aggression of the NP and the aggression of the American forces pushing the ISF to accomplish the mission have caused the people in the area to get to a point where they trust us – and where they trust the NP,” Mager said. “Things are getting better all the time, and looking over time here in the next few years, I think we will see a good turning point.”

Mager added that he wants to maintain what has been accomplished during his three deployments in the last five years.