The Road to Mosul

U.S. troops patrol the insurgency's front door

"Local cooperation is the key," says Captain Mike Yea, 29, one of Becker's staff. The way Yea describes it, Q-West residents keep an eye on their own streets and report anything suspicious to the police, who do what they can and call on the Iraqi Army when they're outgunned. The Iraqi Army, in turn, calls on 2-8 when it's outgunned.

"Case in point," Yea says, planting a finger on a map pegged with color-coded flags representing Iraqi Army checkpoints and outposts. Under his finger is a town named As Shura, bristling with flags.

When 2-8 arrived in October, As Shura was the worst place around. And in November, its police stations were blown to pieces by insurgents. So 2-8 built a fortified outpost downtown and packed it full of recently recruited Iraqi soldiers and a handful of American babysitters.

photo: David Axe

Now, troops in As Shura get as many as six tips per night, says First Sergeant Darren Kinder, 40, from Delta Company, 52nd Infantry. Kinder's unit, attached to Second Battalion, maintains round-the-clock presence at the outpost alongside the Iraqis. "We've asked the local populace to step up," Kinder says, "and they've been responding fairly well."

On March 25, Burns and his patrol stop in As Shura to check on the outpost. Inside, Americans and Iraqis sprawl around a table playing cards. Later, back at 2-8 headquarters, Becker and Murphy head to the roof to smoke cigars. "The fact that we can all relax like this," says Becker, "is a good sign."

So is making connections between local leaders—imams and tribal sheikhs—and Iraqi and U.S. forces. That means meeting the leaders and winning their trust, a delicate task that falls on the shoulders of officers like Captain Ryan Gist and First Lieutenant Todd Cody and soldiers like Specialist Harvey Blankenship. On March 27, they set out early in a patrol of armored Humvees to make their rounds. First stop is downtown Qayyarah, where meat vendors slaughter cows on the sidewalk and frothy blood runs in gutters brimming with trash. Gist, Cody, and a translator greet vendors and private security guards in Arabic and chat them up while Blankenship and other young soldiers stop traffic, search the occasional truck, and keep an eye out for anything suspicious—like an Iraqi teenager strolling the nearby Tigris bank in an Iraqi Army bulletproof vest.

Saying goodbye to a vendor, Gist and the others trot toward the teenager with their rifles aimed at his chest. The kid ditches the vest and raises his hands. Gist makes nice. Just then, Blankenship spots a fishing boat trawling up the Tigris, and Gist waves it in. It beaches near several fishermen making camp around a dying fire while a transistor radio warbles Arabic pop music.

Gist introduces himself and makes some stilted conversation in Arabic before switching to English. His translator listens carefully to everything Gist says before turning to the fishermen and repeating in Arabic.

"Seen anything on the river?" Gist asks.

"Laa," a fisherman says. No.

Behind them, soldiers search the fishing boats and turn up . . . fish.

They hit the road and head across Q-West, stopping at a gas station, police stations, and the Qayyarah oil refinery. Around noon, the patrol pulls onto the groomed, green, and walled lawn of one of Q-West's movers and shakers, Sheikh Ishmael. Kids play outside. Servants tend the sheikh's house and its grounds. Blankenship stands guard while Gist and Cody exchange handshakes and kisses with their host. Then the officers move indoors at the sheikh's elbow. A stout, well-groomed Sunni with a trim mustache and a cigarette always in one hand, the sheikh presses the Americans into chairs and barks at a boy to prepare coffee and chai.

"I consider you my brother and my friend," Gist says to Ishmael as he sips his chai. And then he leans forward and listens as Ishmael talks.

And talks. For more than an hour, Gist nods gravely as Ishmael cites a litany of problems, chief among them unemployment and electricity shortages. Gist sounds his refrain: "We can't do this without you. We need you to tell us where the problems are."

Ishmael thinks a moment, then lists the towns and villages that need attention. Cody takes careful notes.

Outside, Blankenship is besieged by ragtag kids on their way to school. He tries to ignore them as they dance around him yelling, "Mister! Mister! Pencil, mister?"

In an aside, Blankenship says, "It's a big culture shock to see how they live. But we're doing them good. We're not going to see massive change in their culture overnight."

He mentions the main conflict in Iraq, ethnic and religious rivalries, and says, "I mean, we had discrimination in the States too."

His use of the past tense is striking, for Blankenship is an Asian American, but at least things are better in the States than they used to be for people like him. At least there's no ethnic-based slaughter in the streets, like there is in Mosul and like there was in Q-West just months ago.

Blankenship shrugs and says, "Progress might take a century."

On a cold night a few days later, Becker's headquarters is buzzing. In one corner, Yea stares at his map with its colored flags. In another, Command Sergeant Major Victor Martinez, Becker's top enlisted man, spreads his arms over another map—this one highlighting the Tigris as it nears Mosul. He says he's thinking of strapping a machine gun to a houseboat to patrol the river. Someone laughs. Then they realize Martinez isn't kidding.

In another corner, Becker powwows with a bunch of grinning enlisted men who have rifles slung over their backs and helmets under their arms. They're drivers in a convoy that's leaving in the morning. Becker briefs them on their destination. When he says, "Mosul," every grin goes flat.

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