March 14th, 2007 05:57 EST
SHARQOT platoon enters uncharted territory
SHARQOT — In a moment reminiscent of the first triumphant days of the Iraq war, American Soldiers walked through a crowd of cheering Iraqi children. On a dirt road in the village of Sharqot, the children whistled loudly for the Soldiers, then, remarkably, broke into applause.
Surprised, 1st Lt. Michael E. Havey Jr. beamed at the cheering crowd.
“That was pretty monumental,” said Havey, platoon leader of 3rd platoon, Battery A, 5th Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment. “(Before) they wouldn’t even give us a wave.”
Territory for Soldiers of 5-82 FA, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, out of Fort Bliss, Texas was recently expanded to include Sharqot, a town about 60 miles south of Mosul.
The people of Sharqot have remained mostly unexposed to coalition forces since the beginning of the war, said Havey.
In Sharqot, the coalition Soldiers have a chance at a fresh start with the Iraqi people.
“I’m trying to work with the people so that they understand that I’m there to help them, not hurt them, with my forces,” said Lt. Col Robert McLaughlin, battalion commander.
Soldiers of Havey’s platoon, who are in charge of Sharqot, find themselves in a delicate situation. They have to root out terrorists believed to be hiding in the area, without isolating the people of Sharqot.
The happy scene of children cheering was a stark contrast to another scene hours earlier, when Havey had sat before an Iraqi colonel, asking him to convince his Iraqi soldiers to join his own Soldiers in handing out clothing and blankets to needy people in the town.
The colonel refused. He recommended Havey get the people of Sharqot to welcome the Soldiers of 3rd Platoon, then maybe his Iraqi soldiers would be willing to be seen working alongside the Americans.
“When you make relationship with the people outside, then we go with you,” said the Iraqi colonel, through an interpreter. The colonel is the commander of the 13th Strategic Infrastructure Battalion, the Iraqi army unit responsible for the Sharqot area.
“They are afraid of working side by side with coalition forces,” said Sgt. 1st Class Gabriel Boyd, platoon sergeant for 3rd Platoon. Boyd said he thinks the Iraqi soldiers feel terrorists will target their families and other people in Sharqot if they work with the 3rd Platoon troops.
Townspeople are guarded about how coalition presence will change the security situation in Sharqot, said leaders of 5-82 FA.
“Maybe the people were a little bit complacent in the fact that things were quiet, but they didn’t care how or why they were quiet,” said Havey. “They were willing to put up with having terrorists and other people coming through so long as it wasn’t directly harming them.”
But Soldiers of 3rd Platoon cannot ignore terrorist presence in the area.
“As long as they are complacent and quiet about it, it will continue to grow. (Terrorists) will continue to launch operations from that area,” Havey said, “Eventually it will come back to (the people)…That’s only bad for them,” he said.
So the Soldiers of 3rd Platoon, Battery A are patiently trying to win over the people of Sharqot. They hope their concentrated efforts will pay off, not only in earning the respect of the townspeople, but also in stopping terrorists from spreading their influence.
Based on the advice of the 13th SIB commander, Soldiers of 3rd Platoon are courting the sheiks of Sharqot as a way to earn the trust of the 13th SIB Soldiers. Havey believes having the trust of the Iraqi soldiers is an indicator of the feelings of the people of Sharqot, since most of the SIB Soldiers are from the Sharqot area.
“Sheiks, particularly in this area, seem to hold more influence and more power, even though they don’t hold an official position,” Havey said, referring to the fact that Iraqi soldiers are more likely to listen to their sheik instead of government officials.
“If we win the Sheiks’ hearts, we can also win the people,” said Boyd.
In the past six weeks, since 3rd Platoon started operating in Sharqot, the Soldiers have met with the Sharqot sheiks and the city council. They have signed contracts with local workers for small projects in the area, including one to clean up trash in the town.
One of the most influential sheiks in Sharqot has seen the work of 3rd Platoon Soldiers and is spreading the good word to his people, said Boyd. When the Soldiers handed out clothing and blankets to the people of Sharqot, it was from the home of the sheik.
“Just the people seeing us with him, and him feeling safe with us, meant a great deal,” said Havey.
“The ultimate goal is to be able to work with 13th SIB Soldiers and Iraqi Police in Sharqot, build the trust with the local populace, continue working projects in the area for the people and interdict any anti-Iraqi forces that may be influencing the population of Sharqot,” Boyd said.
With the new security plan in Baghdad, 5-82FA Soldiers believe terrorist activity could increase in their area.
“If we control the area of Baghdad, obviously anti-Iraqi forces will try to push somewhere,” Boyd said.
And the Soldiers of 3rd Platoon are intent that that “somewhere” will not be Sharqot.
“We don’t want any anti-Iraqi forces coming from the south to influence the people of Sharqot,” Boyd said
“It’s a hard process down there and our Soldiers are working patiently,” Boyd said
Already their efforts are paying off. Havey said the people have begun to warm up to the platoon Soldiers.
“They seemed a lot more relaxed,” he said.
With a smile he recalls the cheering children.
“It was a pretty moving moment,” Havey said.
By Staff Sgt. Antonieta Rico
5th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment