(AFP) – Jan 3, 2008
OWESAT, Iraq (AFP) — "Our main concern is to find the rat lines," says General David Petraeus, poring over maps at a US military base on the banks of the Euphrates River, "and having found them, to close them."
The rat lines, Washington's top general in Iraq explains, are routes used by Al-Qaeda to move men, money, weapons and ammunition from the west, across the Euphrates and into Baghdad and beyond.
The palm-sprinkled Sunni village of Owesat lies on the banks of the Euphrates about 25 kilometres (17 miles) southwest of Baghdad near the town of Yusufiyah.
Until November or so it was right on a rat line.
"This was a small Al-Qaeda sanctuary that offered an opportunity to go right across the river and on into Baghdad," Petraeus said during a tour of the village this week. "But this rat line is now pretty much shut."
In November, troops from the US 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment took up positions at a gargantuan power station being built by the Russians across the river, and immediately threw a floating bridge across the Euphrates.
"It took only eight to 10 hours to build," recalls Command Sergeant Major Dennis Defrees.
US and Iraqi troops, he says, quickly pushed across the river and chased Al-Qaeda out of the Owesat farmlands, allowing villagers to resume their vegetable farming, schools to reopen and people who had fled to return.
Villagers were also enlisted into a concerned local citizens group -- one of many anti-Qaeda fronts the US military is establishing across Iraq -- and are now taking charge of security.
The concern now, says battalion commander Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Rohling, is to secure the nearby Janabi area -- known for its Hittite ruins -- which is still troubled by insurgents.
"A sheikh was killed there a while ago," he tells Petraeus. "Now no one wants to step up to the plate. We are struggling to find leadership."
An operation in the area a few days ago pushed the insurgents into an area of thick reeds, he added.
"These are resolute people who can stay for a long time underground. Three or four guys in ski masks can undo everything we achieved in four weeks," he adds with a sigh.
Petraeus urges Rohling to push on and clear out the "pockets of Al-Qaeda" so that the road to Baghdad is cleared.
"The farmers need to get their produce to the market," he says before setting off down dusty roads and across the bridge to meet some of the villagers.
"What are your main problems? How do you get your goods to the market?" the general asks 37-year-old farmer Najim Obei Jasim as his three wives and 15 children peer out from behind the gateway into their small compound.
"My main problem is that we need a clinic here," answers Jasim, dressed in warm blue and red tracksuit, as his children shyly accept a football from Petraeus and start kicking it about.
"I also need to be able to get my produce to Baghdad."
The general pulls no punches. It is time, he says, that all the tribes in the area make peace.
A tribe to the north, feuding with the people of Owesa for decades, if not centuries, refuses to allow them access to the Baghdad roads. This means they have to take a longer and more dangerous trip through Fallujah.
"We need you to make up with the tribes," Petraeus tells Jasim. "It takes two hands coming together. If you extend your hand, someone may take it."
After 15 minutes more chatting and taking notes, Petraeus moves through the palm groves past the fields of peas and lucerne to a crowd of youths standing on an embankment. He is accompanied by Iraqi Assistant Interior Minister Fakher Maroush, who was assessing the policing needs of the community.
"Are you going to school?" asks the general.
The youths answer that the school is about two kilometres (just over a mile) from their homes and that they head that way five times a week.
Petraeus, at 55 still fit and lean and tanned from his endless "battlefield" tours, nods approvingly.
About an hour later, darkness starts rolling up the valley and cold creeps in from the Euphrates. The general heads towards the Kemple patrol base the Americans erected on the Owesat side of the river after they secured the area.
On the way he speaks to some gun-toting concerned local citizens, who are on the payroll of the US military.
In their distinctive bright orange over-vests, they tell him their main wants are economic -- they need fresh water and electricity. He again stresses that peace among area tribes is essential for economic development.
Later, Petraeus tells a small group of reporters accompanying him that he finds these walkabouts essential to gain a better understanding of the situation on the ground.
"You (gain knowledge) that is just impossible to get if you aren't out here.
"Just these few conversations we have had in the past hour or so -- the contact with people -- is of enormous importance," he adds.
"This is about protecting the people from the insurgents -- so we can cut them off, (so that) over time people become part of the solution and not part of the problem."
Then it's over to the mess hall and a lengthy working dinner with local tribal sheikhs and further discussions with the battalion's company commanders -- people the general sees as being central to the progress made in 2007.
Much later, his helicopters take off into the darkness and fly without lights back to Baghdad, where most of the rat lines end.
"We do this just about every day, at a different place. The general never stops," says one his interpreters.
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