ByArmy Staff Sgt. Margaret C. Nelson
Special to American Forces Press Service
April 14, 2008 - A young man begins a business to support his new family. Not exactly headline news, but for 24-year-old Kusai, his dream would be realized in the heart of this city that was considered an extremists' stronghold only six months ago. Hawijah, about 60 miles south of Kirkuk city in Iraq's Kirkuk province, has held center stage to the region's worst violence against civilians, Iraq security forces, and coalition forces. The residents here faced 10 to 15 attacks per day, according to military records.
Soldiers report that they routinely were targeted with small-arms fire upon exiting the confines of Forward Operating Base McHenry, where soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division's 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, are located.
But since the citizens and their local leaders turned against the extremists, overall violence in this predominantly Sunni-Arab populated region of northeastern Iraq has dropped nearly 80 percent, Army Lt. Col. Christopher Vanek, commander of 1-87th Infantry, said.
Though isolated incidents occur, "the crucial element to the ongoing successes here are the concerned citizens of Hawijah, who are effectively identifying those responsible [for violent acts] expeditiously," Vanek said. More than 7,000 Hawijah citizens are enrolled as "Sons of Iraq," aiding local security efforts.
Kusai, the young businessman, said the local populace's rejection of extremist violence made it possible for him to open his shop and provide for his family.
"There is business. People feel safer. You see the security," Kusai, said, pointing to the five Sons of Iraq who had stopped by to investigate and converse with the soldiers of Company B, 1-87th Infantry. "These men are very good. They are always stopping by to see if everything is OK," he said.
Kusai is not the only merchant who has benefited. An ice cream parlor across the street that resembles a scaled-down version of a fountain shop in the United States is stocked with soft drinks, cookies, cakes and an ice cream machine.
Masmoud Wasif, 17, welcomes the soldiers as they enter to purchase some canned drinks to hand out to the children that have gathered there. The shop is owned by Wasif's parents, who have operated the store for about three years.
"Business is much better," he said. "People are not afraid to come to the marketplace and shop." He credits the Sons of Iraq for the increased security. "I am very happy they are here," he said, then asked them if they could stay until midnight so he could earn more money.
Besides providing overwatch for the city's security, Sons of Iraq were seen clearing debris and sweeping the streets during this visit. A day later, on a return trip from another mission, Vanek remarked that he has never seen the streets of Hawijah so clean.
"This is incredible," he said upon learning that the Sons of Iraq were responsible. "Incredible."
(Army Staff Sgt. Margaret C. Nelson serves with 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.)