FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Iraq -- The commander of the Marine force charged with ensuring security and stability in the central Iraqi province of Northern Babil wasted little time getting to know the local leaders whose influence and support are keys to mission success.
Col. Ronald J. Johnson, commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, sat down with Sheik Hisham Al Dulaimi and other other tribal elders recently in Baghdad.
During the meeting, held just a few days before the North Carolina-based MEU assumed responsibility for the area, Johnson and Hisham discussed ways to improve economic conditions in the area and root out insurgents bent on violently undermining Iraq's fledgling democracy.
The Marine commander expressed his desire to launch a series of short-term but meaningful projects that could quickly demonstrate to the Iraqis that progress is being made. Hisham welcomed the proposal, and he and Johnson agreed that the more Iraqi jobs the projects produced, the better.
Maj. Clint J. Nussberger, an Ogema, Wisc., native who accompanied Johnson as his Foreign Area Advisor, said that the men found similarly common ground on the issue of security.
Illustrating his bona fides as a peacemaker, Hisham cited his instrumental role in reducing hostilities in Abu Ghurayb, after that city just west of Baghdad saw a spike in violence last spring.
Hisham insisted that such close cooperation with the sheiks would be especially necessary in other provincial cities, where greater violence has made tribal leaders reluctant to approach U.S. leaders.
Johnson, who hails from Duxbury, Mass., shared his own concerns about violations of the mosque's sanctity, in particular its use by enemy fighters as a haven or a platform for attacks on U.S. forces. He mentioned a recent incident in which an enemy mortarman set up a firing position within 300 yards of a mosque during Friday afternoon prayers.
Acknowledging their mutual interest in denying insurgents the chance to exploit the structure's sacred status, Hisham promised to take the matter up with the mosque's spiritual elder, known as an imam.
Johnson said later that Hisham has played a highly influential role in fashioning the perspectives of U.S. forces on other sensitive issues, including the proper treatment of Iraqi women.
A 25-year veteran who has served three previous tours in the Middle East and one in Central Asia, Johnson is familiar with Islamic law and Arab culture. He assured Hisham he will stress to his troops the importance of respecting Iraqi sensibilities -- and will deal appropriately with offenders.
The leaders discussed the indispensable role played by the family in any healthy society, agreeing that security begins at home.
Pursuing the theme, Johnson asked Hisham how Arab culture instructs the family to deal with lawbreakers. Hisham explained that if a member of one tribe commits a crime against a member of another tribe, the tribal leaders would initially try to resolve the matter amicably.
However, if the transgressor's tribe refuses to accept responsibility, that tribe becomes an enemy. Coalition forces would then be justified in taking action, according to Hisham.
While that may be necessary in the near term, it is an option Marine leaders hope to resort to less frequently over time.
The ultimate goal, here in Northern Babil and throughout Iraq, is to create the conditions that would allow U.S. and allied forces to cede the security role entirely to the Iraqis themselves.
Pleased with their inaugural meeting, Johnson and Hisham agreed to more in the future
Johnson said he also looks forward to working with the provincial governor, local police, businessmen, and anyone else interested in discussing ways to improve life for the Iraqi people.
While he is operating with a sense of urgency, he is proceeding deliberately and urging both Americans and Iraqis to be patient.
"This is a problem created over 30 years," he said. "But we will eventually prevail. As long as the Iraqi will holds, right will overcome wrong."