Neighborhood Watch in Baghdad

Leader Lessons

                On 7 April 2003, I was the Platoon Sergeant of a tank platoon that had just fought its way into the heart of downtown Baghdad, Iraq, as part of what was called the second “Thunder Run.” At this point in my life, I was a Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) who viewed the thought of talking to the citizens of Baghdad, a city and people I knew nothing about, as being too risky. I believed that talking to them would not lead to anything constructive nor benefit the members of my platoon, myself, or our mission. I knew I could not trust total strangers to look out for the well-being of me and my Soldiers. I was wrong.

On 7 April, my platoon and I, along with the rest of Task Force 1-64 Armor, set up make-shift checkpoints in and around Saddam Hussein’s Festival and Parade ground complex. This complex was officially known as the “Great Celebrations Square” to commemorate Iraq’s victory in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. My platoon’s blocking positions were just outside the western edge of the complex which was marked by one of two pairs of giant hands holding swords called the “Swords of Qadisiyah.” Over the next week, we moved to different areas of downtown Baghdad, set up various blocking positions, and did not allow anyone within 100 meters of our tanks.

On the morning of 15 April, my platoon was ordered to set up two blocking positions in a neighborhood that flanked the western edge of Saddam Hussein’s military parade field and stadium complex, a little further west than the blocking positions we hastily set up back on 7 April. We did not know it at that time, but we and one of the other platoons in my company would man these blocking positions on a rotational basis for the next two months, before eventually moving on to Fallujah.

Upon our arrival in the neighborhood on 15 April, my platoon leader and I established our respective tank sections’ blocking positions and determined where each tank crew would observe for approaching enemy vehicles or personnel. My tank section, which was comprised of two M1A1 tanks, set up facing southwest down one road; my platoon leader’s tank section, also comprised of two tanks, faced northwest down another road. Our job was to prevent anyone from entering the parade field and stadium complex.

After we established our blocking positions, we shut down our tank engines to preserve fuel and scanned our sectors for the enemy. It was eerily quiet for a while until an Iraqi man in civilian clothes started to approach my section’s tanks, which were only about 25 meters apart due to the narrow road we were observing. We did not know if this man was friendly or not, and because several enemy personnel disguised as civilians had previously killed American Soldiers in suicide attacks, we trained our weapons on him, ready to kill him, if necessary. As he approached, we called out to him in Arabic to stop, and he responded in almost perfect English. I told my tank crew to cover me, and I dismounted my tank to talk to him. He said he was looking for the body of a relative that American Soldiers had killed in the first few days we were in Baghdad and that his relative was buried in the field behind our tanks. I did not know what he was talking about since no one in my platoon nor company had buried anyone there, but another one of our Task Force’s companies had been in the area while we were in other parts of Baghdad. He told me that he was an airline pilot and had attended college in England. He also provided information about the local neighborhood and told me that if we needed anything, we should come to his house and get him. I thanked him for the information and told him we would relay his request to claim and retrieve his relative’s body to our headquarters. I did not know whether he was someone I could trust or not, but I knew where he lived.

A short time later, another Iraqi man approached our tanks with his wife and their five children. They lived in a house that flanked my wingman’s tank. Like the previous man, I told my tank crew to remain vigilant as I thought that this man might be an enemy combatant in disguise. However, he introduced his family to us in well-spoken English and gave us coffee and tea to drink. We talked to the man for a short while, and he and his family returned to their house just 25 meters away.

Sometime that morning, my wingman and I both attempted to start our tanks to charge their batteries and neither one of them would start. In what seemed like just a few minutes later, we noticed 50 to 60 people a few hundred meters in front of us, approaching our position. They were all dressed in civilian clothes, and through our tanks’ magnified gun sights, they did not appear to have weapons. There were women and children in the group, but that did not make me feel any less concerned that they might attack us, or that we might be attacked by an enemy force as we focused our attention on them. I knew of at least one report where an Iraqi woman had approached some American Soldiers at a checkpoint and asked them to help her with her car, which was allegedly broken down with her kids inside. When the Soldiers got to the car, the woman detonated the bomb hidden inside the car, killing some of the American Soldiers, herself and her children.

As the crowd of people got closer, my gunner noticed that the women and children were carrying flowers, food, etc. I told him and my wingman to be prepared for an attack never the less, and to be prepared to close all of our hatches since we had no way to move our tanks. We would have to fight using manual turret controls because we had no electrical or hydraulic power. The second Iraqi man that we had spoken to earlier that morning, whose house was located near my wingman’s tank, suddenly appeared. I asked him what was going on, and he told me that he had invited people in the neighborhood to come and thank us for kicking Saddam’s Army out of the area. I still did not know if I could trust the man or his children (all in their 20s), but the platoon leader and I decided to take the risk and invite the Iraqi families to come up to our tanks one at a time. In the end, the people were gracious and truly just wanted to thank us. They tossed flowers up to us, left food, drinks, sweets, etc., on the front slopes of our tanks, then left. It reminded me of a scene from one of the towns being liberated in France by the American Army during World War II. All but a couple of the Iraqis left and returned to their homes within minutes.

In the ensuing days, some of the men we met that day ended up voluntarily serving side-by-side with us as interpreters and members of what I called the “neighborhood watch”. Some of them volunteered because they wanted to help us, and others because they knew that in helping us with security, they were, in turn, helping ensure the safety and security of their family and friends. Whether they were a policeman, a pilot, a retiree or a college student, did not matter. Some of them worked with us during the day and some worked with us at night. They would stop and talk to every person that approached our tanks’ blocking positions before they could get close to us. If that person was not from the neighborhood, they told us what that person wanted, who they were, and if need be, would tell the person what to do per our instructions. They kept us abreast of what was going on in the parts of the neighborhood that we could not observe from our blocking positions and some of the things going on in and around our area of Baghdad. They taught us Iraqi culture, the local language, and what was being discussed by local Iraqi citizens in the marketplaces, coffee shops, etc.

Over time, the men we met that day in Baghdad became like family to us. They earned our trust, and we, in turn, theirs. In the end, I truly believe the relationships we formed with those Iraqi men and their families led to absolutely zero enemy contact at our blocking positions for the two months we were there. Unfortunately, the leadership of the platoon that took over our blocking positions in the neighborhood before my unit moved to Fallujah in early June, was not interested in, or simply did not trust the local Iraqi people. This was evident when they had their weapons drawn each and every time I introduced them to the men and families that we had established working and familial relationships with during our two months there.

Unfortunately, before my unit even left Baghdad, some of our Iraqi brothers refused to work with the platoon that replaced us, because they said the new platoon members treated them like dogs, did not respect them, and did not trust them. The new platoon would make them stand in front of their vehicles all day or night while the platoon’s members stayed safely inside their vehicles. The Iraqi men could not mingle or talk with the American Soldiers at all. When we first arrived at the neighborhood, I was on edge just like the unit’s leaders that replaced us were, but to this day, I still do not understand why a fellow Senior NCO or his Platoon Leader would not trust me or the other NCOs of my platoon on the value of the relationships my platoon had established with the people of that neighborhood. I am not sure what happened in that neighborhood after we moved to Fallujah, but I do know that my men and I all learned the value of establishing relationships with people who want to help, even if it is initially scary or outside of your comfort zone to do so.

SGM D. Brett Waterhouse