Friday, 23 October 2015 13:43

Samarra: The Long View

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Samarra: The Long View

Peter Hegseth

A member of the New Jersey National Guard, 1st Lt. Peter Hegseth serves as the assistant civil affairs officer, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, known as the Iron Rakkasans, of the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. He is serving in Samarra, the site of the Golden Dome that was shattered by an explosion on February 22nd. The explosion set off bitter sectarian strife. He wrote this email to his family and friends in early June, and it was subseqently published by He can be reached at or 1LT Peter Hegseth, HHC/3-187 IN, 3 BCT, 101st Airborne Division, FOB Brassfield-Mora, APO, AE 09393.

Greetings. I hope and pray that this message finds you all well. I think about you all often, looking forward to the next time I'll see everyone in Minnesota, New York, New Jersey, California and beyond. Ah, just thinking of our blessed country makes me smile. We are so fortunate, so blessed. Hard work, courage, and the hand of Providence have brought us peace and prosperity from sea to shining sea. Daily life in the States distorts our perspective, we get petty and particular; but from Iraq, America shines on the horizon, her flaws minimized by distance and her virtues magnified by comparison. Wise men built our country on timeless ideals and she still stands strong today. Now, more than a world away, Iraq must find her own "wise men"; men poised to the lead the country through the gathering storm.

Fortunately, we have found such a man in Samarra. His name is Asaad Ali Yasseen and he is the City Council President. Appointed by the local Sheiks and Imams of Samarra, Asaad has been a tireless advocate for the city. Faced with daily attacks (5 bodyguards killed and 2 children injured) and countless threats from al Qaeda in Iraq (including a new flyer today that calls for his death), Asaad continues the fight. He has moved his family to safety in Syria, while he and his two sons vow to rebuild Samarra. While he does have certain advantages--independently wealthy, belongs to the largest tribe in Samarra, lofty connections--they do not minimize the heroic nature of his quest to lead Samarra. He has also been an incredible ally to Coalition Forces, providing timely intelligence that has lead to the kill/capture of numerous known insurgents.

Keeping him alive has been a full-time job, especially doing so while maintaining our distance so as to keep him from being seen as a Coalition lackey. We've outfitted him with a bullet-proof Chevy Suburban and weapons for his out-gunned security detail, as well as personally hunting down his would-be assassins. We've made it our mission to be there when it matters most, and this commitment has yielded incredible dividends. He is working hard to hold elections in Samarra (which will put his own job on the line) as well as pushing for reconstruction and compensation funds for Samarra, holding the needs and desires of the people first. He has created (and funded) a city newspaper and the first edition (5,000 copies) came out three days ago. He is man of great courage and I count myself lucky to work with (for) him.

I've had the opportunity to work with Mr. Asaad on a daily basis, both over the phone and through numerous meetings every week. We had lunch with him today, a feast of lamb and fresh vegetables. In fact, about three weeks ago a reporter for the Wall Street Journal was imbedded with us, spending a week shadowing our Civil-Military Operations team and our interaction with Mr. Asaad. His article ran on the front page of the Wall Street Journal on May 20th. For the most part it was a fair article; Samarra is a war zone, there is no way around that. We wish Philip Shiskin had not been so forthcoming about the intelligence Asaad is giving us, but reporters will be reporters. I'll leave it up to you to surmise whom the "Military Officials" and "U.S. Officers" are in the article.

I've waited patiently to send this email because recently I've spent many nights sitting at my computer, mixed emotions brewing inside of me, poised to fire off an "Iraq is doomed" email. There is no doubt that the situation in Samarra and throughout Iraq is full of problems. Corruption is rampant, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are still under-manned and under-equipped, the insurgents continue to attack and sectarian violence brews beneath the surface (but not in 95 percent Sunni Samarra). In Samarra, the city still suffers from decrepit infrastructure, no judicial system (cowardly judges) and insufficient health facilities. And yesterday my patrol was two blocks away when an officer from the local police was gunned down in cold blood while leaving his mosque after evening prayers. Admittedly, there are more nights that I go to bed shaking my head horizontally than vertically. However, this is not the entire picture--and is a dangerously narrow one.

Rather, days like today--and many others that I distinctly remember--are better indicators of progress in Samarra. In a fury of activity today the leaders of Samarra took huge steps forward. The Mayor of Samarra met with the Police Chief and local gas station owners to develop a plan to end black market fuel. He also tasked many different city directorates to improve services with new incoming Iraqi funding. The City Council President met with the leaders of the Iraqi Army and MOI Commandos to seek consensus for security objectives in the city. Lastly--and probably most telling--in the former hot spot of Samarra, insurgents have failed to mount a single significant attack in the city for almost two weeks (yesterday's murder excluded). May not sound like much to the casual observer, but when placed in context it reveals incredible institutional progress. This place used to be an insurgent haven and Baathist cesspool. But after thirty years of tyrannical rule in which Saddam controlled absolutely everything--the leaders in Samarra are finally grasping the power of political, economic and social initiative. Entrepreneurialism and ambition were deadly attributes to possess under Saddam, but not so today.

After cutting through the sensationalized violence, the overall picture in Samarra and Iraq is getting better. The Samarran Police are conducting daily patrols in the city--not so four months ago. Last night they conducted a raid based on intelligence from local leaders, resulting in yet another capture of a High-Value Target. The Iraqi Army has conducted numerous dismounted patrols throughout the city, stopping to engage local citizens and give toys to children--not so four months ago. Tomorrow both the Mayor and City Council President are both heading to Tikrit (Provincial Capital) to engage the Governor and Provincial Council on funding for Samarra--not even conceivable four months ago. The City Council President just released a U.S. quality newspaper for the city that condemns the actions of insurgents and advocates rebuilding efforts and recruiting for Iraqi Security Forces--the previous paper was shut down due to insurgent influence. Lastly, our battalion has killed the "who's who" of insurgents in Samarra--something two previous units were unable to do. Progress is everywhere, it just gets lost in the daily frustrations of counterinsurgency.

I can say this without hesitation--things are getting better in Samarra. You wouldn't know it by driving through the city (or visiting for a week) because the place is still a dump. But the people in the city see the progress in the national and local government, as well as the local Police (hence yesterday's act of intimidation). And in a counterinsurgency fight, gaining the strategic sympathies of the people is fundamental to achieving victory. The people are coming around; the grip of fear is loosening. Insurgents are fleeing and people are coming out of survival mode; locals are once again willing to bid on projects, more roadside bombs are being reported than detonating on soldiers, and young men are signing up for the ISF in bunches. I only pray that we maintain the pace of progress. The lack of insurgent attacks has created a power void in the city--and men like Asaad Ali Yasseen are stepping up. When the history of this city is written, his name will stand atop the list of true "freedom fighters." As he has said to our team before, "we are the true mujahadeen (Holy Warriors) in Samarra."

Inevitably, that brings me to the topic of America's timeline in Iraq. The progress made in this country--and in Samarra--has not come without significant sacrifice in blood, sweat and treasure. But as I've said before, we must see this thing through. The battle for the future of Iraq (and stability in the Middle East) is messy, but we are progressing. Most of the country is relatively quiet, minus a few localized hot spots like Ramadi and sections of Baghdad. Most people go about their daily activities, striving for a better life. Institutions are growing and maturing and hope for the national government is growing. Most Sunnis I've spoken with have high hopes for the new (Shia) Prime Minister and his government, but you wouldn't gather any of this from the daily papers.

A recent quote from a former member of the White House emphasizes the necessary historical perspective:

One might hope our own [U.S.] democratic development--which included the Articles of Confederation and a "fiery trial" that cost more than 600,000 American lives--would remind critics that we must sometimes be patient with others. We are engaged in an enterprise of enormous importance: helping a traumatized Arab nation becomes stable, free and self-governing. Success isn't foreordained--and neither is failure. The process of democratic reform has begun, and now would be precisely the wrong time to lose our nerve and turn our back on the freedom agenda. It would be a geopolitical disaster and a moral calamity.

Regardless of pre-war opinions, we have a duty to finish what we've started. Have we brought daily violence to Iraq? Yes. Have we made costly strategic and tactical errors? Yes. But can we still "win" peace, stability and freedom for the men, women and children of Iraq? Yes. And for that reason, we must press on. We must keep going.

Above my little work area, I have one sign posted front and center. It reads "They want to believe . . ." and my time in Samarra has confirmed this maxim. The Iraqi people will never love us, nor will they overtly praise our efforts. However, despite the violence and our tragic missteps, the silent majority of Samarrans want to believe. They want to believe in the legend that is America. They want to believe that we can do anything. They want to believe that we came to rebuild their city and to rid their streets of "terrorists." Now, the pressure is on us to deliver. Now is not the time for a troop draw down, it is time to deliver. Bring the American GIs in by the boatloads; we have the insurgents on the ropes in Samarra and if our fair city is any indication of greater Iraq, then send even more troops so we can finish them off! Now is the time to prove our message of progress and hope, to fulfill the promises we have offered.

Admittedly, this is an optimistic perspective, but it is based in reality. I walk the streets of Samarra frequently and talk to her citizens every time. We've spent the past month executing an ongoing mission called Operation Broken Windows (named after the policing approach made famous by Mayor Rudy Giuliani in NYC). We saturate certain neighborhoods with basic projects--painting over graffiti, picking up trash, providing medical care and talking to locals. After getting over the initial unfamiliarity, the people are always happy to see us, with one man emphatically asking me "Where have you been!?" Due to the violence of the past two years, the large projects are slow in coming, but they will come; and in the meantime, showing immediate, tangible assistance is extremely important. The people are receptive, especially as we kill the insurgents, train the police and grow the government.

That said, could the situation in Samarra go south? Yes, in a heartbeat. If certain city leaders are killed, the ISF crumbles, or the insurgents are able to regain strength, all the progress we've made could be erased. Notice that all three of those scenarios are more likely with a drawback in U.S. troops. It is always easier to destroy than to build and the insurgents exploit this fact with cowardly attacks on infrastructure and innocents. At this juncture in Samarra, the worse case scenario would be if the problems of other areas in Iraq seeped into our city. The Shia militias remain a huge problem in other parts of the country and eventually something is going to give. Politics 101: Within its borders, a government must possess the exclusive right to the use of violence. Coalition Forces and Iraqi Security Forces are not yet "exclusive" and until we are, lawlessness will prevail. But we grow closer every day.

Once again, this group email has turned into a manifesto. But that's what happens when you try and jam three months worth of thoughts into one email. I apologize for my inability to keep up with personal correspondence--my inbox is littered with unanswered emails and this fact grates my soul. I will do everything possible to answer all emails; you all mean so much to me. I would love to hear the latest from everyone. Your love, prayers, hope and support sustain me each day. The Lord has been so good--I only pray that I can live worthy of His daily blessings.

On a personal level, things are going well. Meredith continues to be the most wonderful woman in the world. It is an honor to call myself her husband. She deserves the best in all things and I cannot wait to get home and finally be there for her. And while I find this job--killing al Qaeda insurgents, rebuilding war-torn streets and building local government from the ground up--extremely challenging and rewarding, I look forward to returning home in late summer. Meredith and I look forward to spending time with everyone soon, especially as we finally share a newlywed year together. Over the past two years I've missed so many precious moments--births, weddings, and funerals of very special people--but I plan on making up for lost time.

If I have inadvertently left anyone off this list, please let me know or feel free to forward it yourself. And feel free to pass this email to anyone--the more the word gets out the better. I wish I could stand on a rooftop and tell everyone the truth about Iraq (good and bad), but this list must suffice for now. When I get back, I hope to get the opportunity to share my experience in various forums and media. "Inshallah" (God willing).

With that I sign off. Please do not hesitate to say hello--I'd love to hear the latest. Enjoy the photos as well.

God bless you and God bless the United States of America.

Pete *

"Let the American youth never forget, that they possess a noble inheritance, bought by the toils, and sufferings, and blood of their ancestors." --Joseph Story

Read 3840 times Last modified on Friday, 23 October 2015 18:43
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