In the general's Black Hawk, flying over a divided Iraq

Posted in Iraq | 12-Jan-04 | Author: John Burns| Source: The New York Times

ABU SAIDA, Iraq Aboard a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter skimming nose down at 15 meters across a landscape of palm groves and semidesert north of Baghdad, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez gazed out at lone shepherds, donkey carts and villagers staring back passively at the airborne flotilla hastening northward across Iraq's horizons.

Then the headset crackled, and Sanchez, 52, who commands the 38-country coalition of allied forces in Iraq, summarized his thoughts in a way that encapsulated America's challenge here nine months after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

"They don't want us here, but they don't want us to leave, either," he said. "That's our dilemma; that's the problem we have to solve."

Sanchez began life at the bottom of the American pyramid, working as a dry-cleaner's delivery boy at the age of 6 to augment welfare payments that supported his Mexican-American family in Rio Grande City, Texas, a few miles from the border his paternal grandfather first crossed in the early 1900's.

Now, addressing "the problem we have to solve," he is into his eighth month as commander of 125,000 American troops in Iraq, the most challenging field command for any American officer since the Vietnam War.

A month ago, Sanchez's troops captured Saddam, the most auspicious moment in the occupation since the Iraqi dictator's statue was toppled in Baghdad on April 9. Sanchez was in an army medical clinic about three hours later when Saddam was brought in by helicopter, manacled and hooded, from his underground spider hole near Tikrit. That, Sanchez said, with the quietness that is one of his trademarks, brought "a certain sense of accomplishment."

A day spent with Sanchez last week was taken up with a trip to Abu Saida, about 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, northwest of Baghdad. The journey, to visit 90 men in a tank company of the 4th Infantry Division that garrisons the town, showed the patterns of light and dark that American troops endure in Iraq.

In Abu Saida, every rooftop is watched for insurgent spotters who infiltrate the town from the south and wait for a chance to launch a rocket-propelled grenade or sniper attack. In the palm groves beyond the town, insurgents lurk, waiting to attack American tanks. To reach Abu Saida, the general's Black Hawk, flying one day after another copter was brought down by rocket fire near Falluja, killing all nine aboard, flew at an extra-low level and followed a weaving path.

Even the base the Americans have set up on the edge of town, in an abandoned Iraqi police station, is called Forward Operating Base Comanche, with echoes of a fort in Indian country during the 19th-century expansion across the Great Plains.

The base commander, Captain Ralph Overland, 28, from Phoenix, is on his second stint with Company C of the 3rd Battalion of the division's 2nd Brigade; he was seriously wounded by rifle bullets to his leg during a raid on an insurgent hideout in Abu Saida last summer.

Overland is at once a soldier hunting the insurgents, and a sort of proxy mayor receiving petitions from scores of townspeople every day.

The Americans are helping to restore electricity, rebuild schools, clinics, water pumps and roads, and are training about 250 men to serve in the new American-backed Iraqi police force, and the Iraqi civil defense corps. It is a difficult mix, captured in one of his exchanges with Sanchez at a briefing before the general's walkabout.

"When you go out after the enemy, are you shooting to kill or capture?" Sanchez asked American officers.

Overland replied: "If they have weapons, we shoot to kill, sir. We kill 'em." He repeated, "If they engage us, we kill them, sir."

The brigade commander, Colonel David Hogg, 45, of Omaha, Nebraska, then emphasized the need for harsh soldiering to counter the hazards in Abu Saida, and Sanchez nodded.

"That's as it should be," the general said.

But he swiftly moved on to what he called the key to American success here - on one hand, pushing back the insurgents, and relieving the pressures on Iraqis who are victims in far greater numbers than Americans of the insurgent attacks; on the other, showing the path to a better future for all Iraqis with practical improvements in everyday life. In Abu Saida, U.S. troops have spent $150,000 on improvements, and have approval to spend at least $535,000 more.

"It's about gaining and retaining the consent of the people," Sanchez said to the officers who gathered in front of a satellite map of the Abu Saida area in the dim interior of the command post.

"That's what we're here for - fighting a war and building a nation."

It is a task that Sanchez believes is within grasp. In a conversation at his Baghdad headquarters a few days before the trip to Abu Saida, he said that despite the scale of warfare that had disappointed and even shocked many Americans, allied forces here could fail only if the political will of the United States faltered.

"I really believe that the only way we are going to lose here is if we walk away from it like we did in Vietnam," he said. "If the political will fails, and the support of the American public fails, that's the only way we can lose."

As the sun went down in Abu Saida, Sanchez set off for a walk. The town lies on the eastern edge of the Sunni Triangle, which is the center for 90 percent of all attacks on American troops. But unlike most settlements nearby, Abu Saida has a large Shiite majority. Overland, briefing Sanchez, said most of the insurgents who had attacked American forces in the town were Sunni groups infiltrating from the south.

Outside the American headquarters, Sanchez chatted with crewmen who, like others in the American garrison at Abu Saida, had been retrained as infantrymen for patrols, firefights and other duties. One of the crewmen, Hector Quijada, 20, from New York, said Sanchez was a hero among Mexican-Americans, and among Quijada's friends in his hometown of CancĂșn. "The people of Mexico always talk about General Sanchez, everybody gets excited about him," he said.

Setting off on his tour, Sanchez was flanked by 20 soldiers as two Apache helicopters circled above. The general slowly moved past kebab stands, generator repair shops and bazaar stalls piled high with oranges, lentils and spring onions. People in the street watched, uncertain who the visitor was. A few applauded. "America good!" they said.

At the end of the main street, a man in a black cloak and a kaffiyeh, the checkered headdress favored by many men in the Iraqi countryside, stepped forward speaking a pidgin English.

"Mister!" he said. "I want talk to you, mister!" The man, Muhammad Hussein, a 60-year-old retired headmaster of a local primary school, launched into a litany of Abu Saida's expectations of America: more money for schools and clinics; the repair of roads torn up by tanks; an improvement in his pension.

Then Hussein paused and asked courteously who the American visitor was. "We don't know you, sir," he said.

"My name is General Sanchez, and I have come to Abu Saida to say hello," the general replied.

Hussein seemed momentarily taken aback, then pressed ahead. "Then you take me to Baghdad, I talk to you in Baghdad, I want to speak only to you, we settle problems of Iraq," Hussein said.

Sanchez, anxious American bodyguards urging him to move on, replied with a laugh, "I'm not sure I could take you in my helicopter - that's against regulations."

Hussein, smiling broadly, shook the general's hand, and the American party moved on.