CAMP DEFENDER, RAMADI, Iraq -- Aside from working in one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq, Capt. John M. Costello has one of the most difficult jobs in the country.
The 31-year-old Barnegat, N.J., native is a U.S. military advisor to the Iraqi Army helping them to defeat the insurgency here.
“We are here to advise them and evaluate their progress,” said Costello. “But the overall objective is to get the people here to trust the Iraqi soldiers and have confidence in them.”
Costello believes that gaining the Iraqi people’s confidence is the key to success. In the last eight months, Costello’s soldiers from 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade of the 7th Iraqi Army Division did just that. Daily patrols through the city coupled with house-to-house search operations provided his Iraqi soldiers with much needed exposure to the people here. With each operation, the people become more familiar with his battalion of soldiers.
“Every time we go out, the people begin to see that this is obviously not the army of the old regime,” Costello said. “They are beginning to see the Iraqi Army is here to help and they can trust them.”
The battalion’s tactics of maximizing its contact with the people seems to be paying off. The recent Dec. 15 elections bore little violence with Iraqi troops maximizing their street presence in and around the polling sites throughout the day. Additionally, Costello said he has seen a general decrease in violence in the area over the last few months.
“Everyday it’s getting better here,” said Costello. “I can see, in the not so distant future, soldiers going down and buying food and cigarettes from the local market. It’s incrementally improving on a daily basis.”
Until the day comes where Iraqi soldiers can move throughout the area uninhibited, Costello’s soldiers will continue pushing further into the corners of the city. The battalion’s area of operations is quite sizeable given the population density of the city. They’re responsible for two adjoining areas that combined, cover nearly eighteen square kilometers of seemingly endless concrete homes and buildings.
With the exception of a few main roads, the city blocks are separated only by narrow alleys and restrictive dirt roads cluttered with debris. Gaining and maintaining control is a constant battle fought against an enemy that wears no uniform and whose main weapon is the roadside bomb.
“We’re constantly working to get the Iraqi soldiers out into the streets,” Costello said. “We want to have them moving into the city and living amongst the local populace. It will help them gain the trust of the Iraqi people.”
Gaining that trust is a tall order. Years of oppression and intimidation by the former regime of Saddam Hussein has left the people here skeptical of anyone in uniform. It has caused Costello’s soldiers to constantly be aware of the image they are projecting. They balance between trying to keep a tight grip on the insurgency and limiting interruptions to the daily lives of the people.
Although the Iraqi soldiers have a tight hold on the city, there are still numerous insurgents living in abandoned homes and buildings. They hide their weapons and munitions there for later use. The cat and mouse game forces the soldiers to conduct weekly raids on homes, searching for weapons. It’s intrusive and often frightening to the city’s residents, but Costello said he feels like they can mitigate their fears and irritation through common courtesy.
“When the army from the old regime searched a house, they would tear it apart. The people were scared and intimidated. (The old army) would commit terrible atrocities. They left a very bad impression on the people.” Costello said.
“The Iraqi soldiers now don’t do that. If they search something they put things back in order. They are professional. It sounds trivial, but it makes a big difference. It translates into trust and the trust of the Iraqi people is what we’re striving for. We’ll need the help of the people to defeat the insurgency.”
Slowly, the Iraqi soldiers are winning over the population. Through weekly meetings with local sheiks and tribal leaders and talking with Iraqis while on patrol, they’ve built a rapport with the people.
“The more they trust them, the more information they give about the insurgents. They’ve won their trust by being a professional army,” Costello said. “The Iraqi Army working with the Iraqi people will defeat the insurgency.”