By Army Staff Sgt. Brent Williams
Special to American Forces Press Service
Sept. 23, 2008 - An Iraqi family stands in the doorway of the house where they lived before sectarian violence overwhelmed their lives. Once used by insurgents as part of a network of terrorist safe houses, it now stands empty in a suburban neighborhood in the Hadar community of southern Baghdad's Rashid district — but not for long. Soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team are working with Iraqi security forces commanders, community leaders and "Sons of Iraq" citizen security groups to help displaced families return home.
Nearly 6,000 Rashid families have returned to their neighborhoods since April, when the "Raider" brigade assumed responsibility for the mixed Shiia, Sunni and Christian area. That's a good indicator that security is improving for the area that is home to about 1.6 million people, said Army Capt. Dave Lombardo, commander of the 4th Infantry Division's Troop B, 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, part of Multinational Division Baghdad.
When the soldiers of "Bulldog" Troop began patrolling the streets of the predominately Sunni community of Hadar in southeastern Baghdad, it was like a ghost town, Lombardo said, with only about 15 percent of its houses and buildings occupied. But Rashid's displaced citizens are returning by the hundreds, he said, and he estimated that nearly half of Hadar's structures now are occupied.
The troop's current mission to support Iraqi security forces with offensive operations keeps the enemy out of the Hadar community, said Lombardo, a native of Kennesaw, Ga.
"We are security, plain and simple," he said. "We keep the people safe, set the conditions to be able to perform civil affairs projects, and at the same time transition the [Iraqi security forces] to the lead."
The soldiers ensure that the displaced citizens can move back to their homes safely, and they work to ensure there is a good representation of security forces in the communities to allow returning Iraqis to rebuild their lives and return to a sense of normalcy, said Army 2nd Lt. Jon Byrd, a Troop B platoon leader from Gulf Port, Miss.
"It's a good time to move back," Byrd said, noting the improved security and microgrants that are jump-starting the economy and providing jobs.
The "Bulldog" Troop patrols the streets of Hadar daily, conducting combined patrols with Iraqi National Police and Sons of Iraq, said Army Staff Sgt. Jesus Villareal, a Troop B section sergeant and cavalry scout from Chico, Calif.
"The area is a lot safer now," Villareal said. Iraqi and coalition forces circulate throughout the community, handing out flyers and talking with the people, which fosters the support of the local citizens, who continue to report enemy weapons stockpiles, illegal militia members and intimidation attacks, he added.
"We have been saturating the area," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Joaquim Garcia, a Troop B platoon sergeant from Converse, Texas. "We constantly visit the families that are moving in, so we have constant eyes on the people in the area. There are small intimidation cells that are trying to stop these movements, and they will get caught."
The mission is still the same, but the situation has changed, said Garcia, who is serving his third deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and seventh deployment overall since entering active service more than 16 years ago. Most of the soldiers, leaders and noncommissioned officers in the platoon have two or three tours to Iraq, he said.
"We all know what it was like, and we all see the major change and how security is now," he said."Doing small operations like this right here to help resettlement and help bring the people back to their homes — that makes us happy, because we know that our mission is almost complete."
The key to reinforcing security during the resettlement phase is working with the Iraqi security forces and maintaining contact with the people in the communities, Garcia said.
Iraqi National Police 2nd Lt. Hassan works with his forces to secure Hadar.
"The national reconciliation in our country under the leadership of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has played an effective role in returning safety and security to all Iraq, and especially in the Doura area," Hassan said. The curfew has been canceled, he noted, and Iraqi commanders are using community leaders, Iraqi media and word of mouth to encourage displaced families to return to their homes in Hadar.
"We see cars moving freely, displaced families [starting] to return, as well as shops staying open for late hours, all confirming the security improvement in Doura," he said.
The security and stability in Hadar and surrounding areas has prompted more than 1,000 families to return, said Army Lt. Col. Troy Smith, commander of the 4th Infantry Division's 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team.
"It's a huge difference," said Smith, a native of Culpepper, Va. "People are moving in where people are, and the resettlement just keeps spreading. As more families move in, the place gets more populated; therefore, it's even more secure, and as resettlement comes back, more resettlement picks up, because the security gets better."
(Army Staff Sgt. Brent Williams serves in Multinational Division Baghdad with the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team.)