BAQOUBA, Iraq - When U.S. civilian authorities were rooting out Saddam Hussein loyalists, Col. Dana J.H. Pittard recruited 41 of them as advisers and encouraged them to stay in contact with the very insurgents who were fighting his men.
Discovering that a respected Muslim cleric had been in prison for 10 months, Pittard and a small contingent helicoptered 300 miles to the lockup in full battle gear, and confronted military police guards, demanding that they free him. "We made it very clear we wouldn't leave without him," Pittard said. Otherwise, he added jokingly: "I think we would have kidnapped him."
Pittard, commander of an American infantry brigade in the once insurgency-rife province of Diyala, is outspoken and his tactics don't always follow the textbook. But he believes they have produced a "recipe for success" at Baghdad's vital northern gateway.
It includes everything from driving wedges between rebel factions to forbidding his troops to be rude to Arabs.
Pittard belives in victory
A Harvard-educated military aide to former President Clinton, the colonel from El Paso, Texas, also believes that contrary to what some military analysts think, a conventional U.S. Army unit with the right training, tactics and mind-set can defeat the rebellion.
While Pittard and others acknowledge that the insurgency remains active and could again worsen, he points to evidence of a sharp decrease in attacks in the largely agricultural region of about 1.7 million people.
Roadside and car bombings, while still a serious threat to his 6,000 soldiers, fell 60 percent from their June peak while direct attacks plummeted by 85 percent, according to the military. As mortar and rocket strikes on Camp Warhorse, headquarters of Pittard's 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, have subsided, body armor no longer has to be worn at all times and outdoor volleyball and basketball courts have come into use.
Pittard, 45, believes it's important to project toughness. "The fact that we allowed ourselves to pull out of Fallujah was a mistake," he says, referring to the insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad. To prevent any such backsliding in his territory, Pittard has troops continuously stationed inside Baqouba, the provincial capital about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
"We don't allow even the slightest sign of open resistance," he said.
When the Diyala Province town of Buhritz flared up over the summer, Pittard threatened to destroy it and a sizable U.S.-Iraqi force went in to kill or wound about 50 insurgents. But at the same critical moment, as leaflets circulated demanding U.S. troops stay out, Pittard drove into the center of town, held a news conference for Iraqi media and asked: "What do you need in Buhritz?"
"We realize we can kill the enemy till kingdom come and still not be successful," Pittard says. "You need a full-spectrum, balanced approach… the right balance between lethal and nonlethal action."
Pittard says his staff studies counterinsurgencies going back to the 1899-1902 Philippine Insurrection and holds regular "free-thinking" sessions during which anyone, regardless of rank, can come up with ideas.
Crucial, he says, were the nine months the brigade spent as peacekeepers in Kosovo not long before coming to Iraq in March.
"I think we got to know how important it was to relate to people, and how to separate the bad guys from the population," he says. "We have not scooped up people in a big net to find the rotten fish."
"We deconstruct who is who," he said. "If a guy feels he's a nationalist fighting the occupier of his homeland we can deal with that. It's the hard core that has to be killed or captured."
Not long after the Iraqi national election in January the brigade will leave Iraq and the replacement unit may pursue other tactics.
A Western civilian official, interviewed on condition of anonymity, spoke positively about Pittard's overall approach, but cautioned that the successes in Diyala may prove only momentary. And while the insurgents appear to have lost ground in Diyala, Pittard's intelligence officer, Maj. Kreg Schnell, says 13-15 cells are still operating and elusive.
A unit can be just "three men with a rocket launcher on a pickup truck," he says, and Diyala's unemployment rate of up to 70 percent among males makes it fertile recruiting ground.
Factors favor Pittard's way
In his favor, Pittard says, is a solid provincial governor and police chief, $560,000 for weapons buybacks and an amnesty program that assistant Gov. Ghassan Abass Jassim says has attracted more than 400 militants.
Jassim claims the province has become the safest in central Iraq. "In the future maybe there will be zero terrorists in Diyala, especially as projects that bring more employment come on stream," he said.
Ex-generals and colonels, who Pittard says had been fired, now sit on a Military Advisory Committee and are encouraged to negotiate with the insurgents. The Americans pay them a salary of $250 a month.
The gamble, Pittard says, is paying off. He says the advisers have weakened links between the hard-core fighters and less militant rebels. Some of the rebels were once soldiers under the command of the officers-turned-advisers and still respect them. They have helped persuade several others to surrender.
An insurgent leader, Ahmed Hamid Jassim, recently laid down his weapons and pledged in writing to the committee thathe wouldn't take them up again, Pittard said. "If he breaks his promise, they'll probably kill him," he said.
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