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U.S. Soldiers Try to Bridge Cultural, Military Divide in Iraq


The number of attacks in Iraq goes up and down, but that's just one way to measure progress in the war. Other factors are harder to quantify, and today, we're hearing about some of those factors. One is the way Iraqis view the American troops who still patrol their cities. Day after day, US soldiers work the streets hoping to win over the population. NPR's Phillip Reeves spent a day with an American platoon in and around the northern city of Mosul.


This war has produced many bizarre sights, and this is one of them.

Unidentified Man: Pull past him.

REEVES: A convoy of Stryker armored vehicles clatters to a halt in a quiet market street. A group of American soldiers steps into the sunshine armed with smiles and newspapers.

Lieutenant JOSHUA DALEY(ph): We're trying to make friends. We're trying to make contacts here and people that are, you know, sympathetic to our cause.

REEVES: Lieutenant Joshua Daley and his men are on what they call a meet-and-greet operation. They've come to an unstable corner of southern Mosul called Philistine, or Palestine. Anti-American sentiments run high here. It was once a Baathist stronghold. Yet today, many residents do appear willing to meet and greet with Americans.

Lt. DALEY: That's right.

Unidentified Man #1: Mister, the American Army give this for us.

Lt. DALEY: Did they?

Unidentified Man #2: Yes.

Lt. DALEY: OK. Well, we'll keep doing it here and then in a couple of days I'll bring you a new one, the newest one...

REEVES: The newspaper which for soldiers of Bravo Company 115 are handing out carries articles promoting Iraq's US-supported transitional government. Daley says the exercise is part of a broader effort to glean information.

Lt. DALEY: You're really coming out here trying to meet people. They come out. And once the people start to trust you--we've already had it where you walk the streets, you're passing out newspapers and they come out and say, `You know, hey, look, there's a bomb right down the road.'

REEVES: But the paper faces competition from other media hostile to the US.

Lt. DALEY: If you look on the walls here, you can see all this graffiti? We've really taken to the streets here, kind of like a gang unit would in, say, LA. It's a giant gang war and we've got the biggest gang. So every time we see graffiti, we mark it out, we tag it with US forces and we say, `Hey, look, this is our block.'

REEVES: Scrubbing out graffiti is easy. Forging bonds with Mosul's residents is not, though Daley says his platoon's been making significant progress. Some half an hour into the mission, the platoon receives the first bad news of the day. To orientate themselves in Iraqi cities, the US military uses American street names.

Lt. DALEY: Hey, we're going to head down Constitution and head by that house we go to. We heard some information here that kind of disturbs us. They may have heard...

REEVES: The soldiers turn off the so-called Constitution Avenue to find the road blocked by a funeral tent.

(Soundbite of men speaking in foreign language)

REEVES: A group of mourners explains that insurgents have shot dead one of their family.

Lt. DALEY: Oh, so they were in the car...

Unidentified Man #2: Yes. Yes.

Lt. DALEY: ...and the terrorists pulled up next to him and then...

Unidentified Man #2: Yes.

Lt. DALEY: ...pulled his brother out and shot him.

Unidentified Man #2: Yes. Yes. Yes.

REEVES: He was 22 and recently joined the Iraqi security forces.

Lt. DALEY: He's one of the local guards that works for a protection agency, and they're--one of the terror tactics they use in this country is when they know of people that work for these groups, they find them at home or in their cars in a local area and they execute them. And that's pretty much what happened.

(Soundbite of children)

REEVES: Iraqi children notice that one soldier's handing out candies. He's immediately besieged, but the platoon has another task today, one that seems at odds with this meet-and-greet work. It's to take over an Iraqi home and set up a temporary surveillance post in the hope of catching insurgents.

(Soundbite of door banging open)

REEVES: The arrival of Daley and his soldiers appears to take the occupants of the house by surprise.

Lt. DALEY: OK. Listen to me. Let me make this really clear for you.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Lt. DALEY: We need to be in your house for a few hours.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Lt. DALEY: Everybody in this house will stay here.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: The occupants still look baffled and unhappy, so another soldier issues orders to them in far less diplomatic language.

Unidentified Soldier #1: Look. Check this out. You tell them this.

Lt. DALEY: No, wait. I just told him exactly that.

Unidentified Soldier #1: You're not (censoring) leaving. Nobody's (censored) leaving this house. You're not using the phone. Anybody comes, they're going to (censored) stay here.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Soldier #1: OK? They give me a (censored) hard time, I'll turn you guys into the commandos and they will (censored) you up.

Unidentified Soldier #2: Hey, don't try and be frightening.

Unidentified Soldier #3: Yeah, don't say that.

Unidentified Soldier #1: That's what I tell them all the time.

Unidentified Soldier #3: You shouldn't say that.

REEVES: The platoon moves on again to a mud village a few miles south of Mosul. The lanes are narrow.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

REEVES: As it tries to maneuver through them, Daley's Stryker runs into a sewage channel outside a house and gets stuck.

Lt. DALEY: Damn.

REEVES: A group of concerned-looking Iraqis gathers around.

Lt. DALEY: Who's house is this? Ask them, `Who's house is this?'

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: The Iraqis say it's not the first such incident. They point out a battered electricity poll which they say was hit by a Stryker on an earlier visit by the US military. Daley is apologetic.

Lt. DALEY: I'm very sorry. Very sorry.

REEVES: He makes arrangements for a US military team to come in and organize compensation.

Lt. DALEY: You know, we have ticked off some people there, but it tends to be temporary and we generally go back later on with a civil affairs team and we try to talk to them on a more less military, personal level and that usually tends to win them over.

REEVES: Just a few yards down the road, another drama is playing out. A couple of young Iraqis have ripped up the newspaper handed out by the platoon, to the annoyance of Daley's men.

Unidentified Soldier #4: They tore them up and threw them on the ground.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: The soldiers take one of the Iraqis to one side.

Unidentified Soldier #5: Why you ripping up the paper?

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Soldier #5: Why are you ripping up the paper?

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Soldier #5: Huh?

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Soldier #5: What?

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Soldier #5: Who did?

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Soldier #5: No. No.

Unidentified Soldier #6: One of these kids...

REEVES: Staff Sergeant John Scriven is clearly irked by the incident.

Staff Sergeant JOHN SCRIVEN: And then when the guy tears the paper up in my face, it looks like, `Well, he's disrespecting everything we're trying to do,' and maybe he knows somebody or maybe he is somebody. But it's just blatant for him to tear that up in my face and then lie about it? It's blatant. You know, he blatantly disrespected everything we're trying to accomplish.

REEVES: Eventually, Lieutenant Daley intervenes.

Lt. DALEY: If you tore up the paper, that's fine. If you didn't tear up the paper, that's fine. Don't tear up the papers in the future--OK?--if you did. If you want another paper, we'll get you another paper, all right? We're trying to help...

Unidentified Man #6: (Foreign language spoken)

Lt. DALEY: We're trying to help you.

Unidentified Man #6: (Foreign language spoken)

Lt. DALEY: You know, we're doing the right thing. We're hitting the right subjects, you know? Getting that human element out there, I think that's important. And I think every day we go out there, we're making that half a step forward, but as soon as you stop, you're going to go a full step back.

REEVES: It sounds straightforward enough, but on Iraq's front line, nothing is as simple as it sounds. Phillip Reeves, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.