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US commanders hone battlefield diplomacy in Iraq

Sheik Sabah Mutasher appreciated the US Army's efforts to build a school for his tribe. But he didn't embrace the American mission until Col Walt Piatt showed up in a dusty pickup truck for a spur-of-the-moment courtesy call.

world Updated: Mar 03, 2009 16:41 IST

Sheik Sabah Mutasher appreciated the US Army's efforts to build a school for his tribe. But he didn't embrace the American mission until Col Walt Piatt showed up in a dusty pickup truck for a spur-of-the-moment courtesy call.

The sight of a US officer riding with locals instead of in a bomb-protected vehicle is a window into the future for American forces. With the end of combat operations fixed for August 2010, commanders will switch to support and training roles and are now sharpening their skills at street-level diplomacy. It's all part of the shift in Iraq to emphasize the soft power of the Pentagon, which can use its troops and armored equipment to move around the war-battered nation more quickly and easily than State Department or other American officials. But it's also left the military grappling with how to task combat troops in Iraq beyond the end of combat deadline set last week by President Barack Obama. "All soldiers are combat soldiers," Maj Gen David G Perkins told reporters Monday in Baghdad. "The focus is what is their mission. That really becomes the issue."

In Piatt's patch of north-central Iraq, the focus has increasingly shifted for his Hawaii-based infantry brigade: crop-growing, water projects, employment and helping local leaders navigate their new political system. Insurgent-hunting and other battlefield duties are mostly left to the Iraqis. "This is what I call local moral support," Mutasher told Piatt as the two stood Saturday afternoon at an Iraqi Army checkpoint in Dawr, a small village outside Tikrit where Saddam Hussein was captured. "You sit in this pickup truck, not in the armored vehicles behind them. That is moral support."

Piatt smiled but was otherwise all business.

A few minutes earlier, a lower-ranking sheik from the same al-Shammar tribe had privately complained that his tribesmen have yet to be paid by the Iraqi government for manning a checkpoint. The problem appeared to be whether the BMW-driving Mutasher had made sure the guards were registered and on the payroll. "Are you confident these men will be able to register?" Piatt asked Mutasher. "We must make sure."

"I'm going to have the list ready with names," the sheik said, adding that US and Iraqi government officials ultimately would have to approve paying the guards. "We'll complete the names and, as soon as we have them, you'll sign."

The polite confrontation, which took place in the middle of a highway, capped Piatt's day of meetings with local Iraqis and surveying Tuz Khormato, a bustling if grimy city about 130 miles (210 kilometers) north of Baghdad.

Training the Iraqi police and army remains a military priority for the Obama administration, which will leave up to 50,000 US troops in Iraq to advise the Iraqi government and help set up services such as electricity, water and education. The sticking point is whether or not the troops will be the combat soldiers who have become on-the-job experts in the diplomacy mission. The US Army has only 45 combat brigades, each with about 3,500 soldiers, many of which are needed to fight an escalating war in Afghanistan. In Tuz Khormato, where cows ate from piles of trash and children in the marketplace begged American soldiers for pens, Piatt met with the chief of the city's police department and the head of an emergency response center that may soon host a permanent onsite US adviser.

Sunni and Shiites almost evenly divide the population of Tuz Khormato, said police Chief Hussein Ali Rasheed, whose force has 484 officers and 37 cars to patrol the city of 100,000. Computers don't work at the one-room emergency response center, and its leader, retired Iraqi Maj. Mohammed Fathel Aziz, pleaded for a new color copy machine to replace one that has broken down. To him, the copier problem symbolized the dwindling financial support for his center.

Piatt was noncommittal about the copy machine but raised the issue of the center's cramped quarters later with Mayor Mohammed Rashid.

"I'm looking forward for the joint coordination center to be moved up in Dawr," Piatt told Mohammed.

Mohammad flashed a look at Aziz. "Is he your master?" the mayor asked the retired Iraqi major, nodding at Piatt in a brief moment of tension.

Piatt later said he merely hoped to speed the moving process. His combat troops, part of the 25th Infantry Division from Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, are scheduled to leave Iraq in October. If they are not replaced by another combat team, he wants to "make sure we're creating something that can be sustained by the Iraqis themselves."

"If you don't keep pressuring for the roots of good governance, you allow for the insurgency to grow," Piatt said. "It's just as important."