Oregonian in Iraq: 'The Iraqis have taken the lead'

Oregonian in Iraq: 'The Iraqis have taken the lead'
A young boy serves chai to the U.S. soldiers.

MUQDADIYAH, Iraq -- Inside the armored vehicle hangs a pair of orange and black dice, a good luck charm in Oregon State Beaver colors from Justin Wrightman previous deployment to Iraq in 2007.

Today, he stands guard near his Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, which is adorned with stickers of the Oregon State University Beavers.

“Today went well,” says Staff Sgt. Wrightman, 26, Eugene, Ore. “The new security agreement changed the way things work, the Iraqis have taken the lead, our role has taken a back seat

"Interacting with people is the same," he says, "still very respectful. They realize we’re here to help. It is almost as if they are thankful that the Iraqis are taking the lead.”

A view of Muqdadiyah from the MRAP

Inside the building, the voices of the city council rise and overlap, hands raise, and to make a point, hands passionately slap the table. The meeting continues.

One of the issues discussed, paving roads, is one that Oregonians could relate to, although here in Iraq roads are just one problem in a sea of troubles.

The beginning of the meeting focuses on the picking contractors for projects.

“It could be for sidewalks, roads, electricity, could be anything,” says Cpt. Josh Calmes, 30, of Lousiana, the battery commander.


Even before entering the building, Calmes was stopped by a man asking to fix a water problem. Calmes directed him to speak with Iraqi officials now that U.S. troops have pulled out of the cities.

“He hasn’t had water for years,” says Calmes.

But there is not much he can do. His job is to attend these meetings every week, listen carefully and bring information back to his base less than two miles away.

Paving of roads is just one of many ongoing projects started by U.S. coalition forces in Iraq. Others include projects such as hospital reconstruction. But now many of the projects are being transferred from US coalition forces to the Iraqis.

“The good thing is that they are figuring out the system, getting contractors,” says Calmes, who has been in country for 11 months.


Rolling through an Iraqi city

Soldiers from Bravo Battery, Task Force 3-21 Infantry, based out of Fort Wainwright, Alas., start their Tuesday mornings by loading into Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and heading to the nearby city.

Cpt. Josh Calmes, 30, of Lousiana, the battery commander and another soldier sit in the MRAP before leaving the military base.

The convoy rolls past high concrete barriers, groves of fig trees, Iraqi shops and markets. Women swathed in black walk past the convoys diverting their eyes. Long stretches of cars wait for gas.

Cpt. Calmes and several other soldiers will spend their time in the conference room with the city council, while other soldiers like Wrightman perform security outside.

The council consists of 15 representatives, including two women, from different sectors of Muqdadiyah and its surrounding areas in the Diyala Province.

At the city council meeting, Calmes sits on a black, leather couch placed against one wall as Chairman Raad Abd Jassim; leader of the council sits at the head of a long conference table.

Calmes takes a break and meets with an administrator, Fadil Nsaif Jassim, who says today is like any other Tuesday, busy with the U.S. coalition forces and the city council.

“How is the rebuilding of homes damaged from Al-Queda?” asks Calmes.

Jassim responds that people have been requesting rebuilding of the destroyed land and houses. The main help they receive are from non-government agencies like the Danish Refugee Council, which sent in workers to help.

Calmes doesn’t know why the Iraq budget isn’t working efficiently at this point, but he is confident that it is starting to work.

“We really want to see these houses get rebuilt,” says Calmes.

Another man in the administrator’s office man had his house ruined and lost his wife; he can’t talk about it, and he leaves the room visibly upset.

Jassim is all too familiar with destruction of the past. He was once kidnapped and forced to watch another man’s execution, and he says the stress of the situation gave his wife a heart problem, which eventually led to her death.

Though things are improving, the ravages of war still lay in the eyes of the people.

“As the Iraqi people, we need to help as action, not just talking,” says Jassim about rebuilding their city and lives.

Administrator Fadil Nsaif Jassim, who says today is like any other Tuesday, busy with the US coalition forces and the city council, stamps another sheet of paper.

Back at the meeting, a woman now sits in the corner listening. She runs an office dealing with problems affecting women in the community.

“We try to educate females telling them the equality of the sex,” says Salma Jassim Muhamed. “I am a daughter of the city, I was born here. Fifty years ago it was really nice here, full of educated people, and we are going back in time, now it’s a dirty city.”

She cares about the city. She has come to the meeting to suggest a plan, a competition in which people clean up their blocks and win a prize for their work.

It is difficult to see things lay in ruins.

“Right now every time I leave my house I see my city and I feel like I am in a graveyard, my whole city is a dump,” says Muhamed.

For now she just sits and listens.

When the council finishes, Calmes talks with the chairmen. The two men plan for a feast at the end of the week with soldiers and Iraqis.

“We have always been here as a friend,” says the chairmen in reference to the soldiers relationship with the council.

Relationships have formed between the people and the soldiers. Today several of the soldiers sip hot sugary tea before they leave the city.

In the last three-month Wrightman has befriended a boy that works at a chai tea stand nearby.

An Iraqi boy serves the soldiers chai tea.

“He works there, his family has been displaced. The kids, they don’t have a whole lot. When you run into kids like that, they’re so impressionable. I give him money or like, American sunglasses, whatever put a smile on his face. It’s hard to see what some people have been through. The better impression we make on youths the better to sustain everything we’ve done since we’ve been there.”

Wrightman, married with two kids back at his base in Alaska, seems at ease with young Iraqi.

As Wrightman leaves he pounds fists and high-fives the boy, who smiles solemnly as the soldier walks away.

Cali Bagby is embedded with the Oregon Army National Guard from Charlie Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation, a Medevac Unit based out of Salem, Ore., for KVAL.com. Her work has been published in the Washington Post and the Eugene Weekly.
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