Monday, March 15, 2004

2nd Lt. Peter Balke's patrol had three objectives besides keeping an eye out for militants: stop by the Jordanian Embassy to check security, count the squatters in an old government building and investigate complaints that a new brothel had opened.

"Everybody got their money with them?" one of the soldiers shouted.

Balke smiled, then continued his briefing.

Balke, 22, is part of the new wave of troops replacing the one that stormed Iraq a year ago. He's a field artillery officer, freshly retrained in infantry tactics, and the eight-man squad he leads on nightly patrols through downtown Baghdad consists of cooks, mechanics and drivers.

When it comes to policing Iraq, he says, "Artillery, infantry -- whatever you are -- you can't expect to always get the mission of your branch."

Balke is assigned to Headquarters Battery, 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, part of the Fort Hood, Texas-based 1st Cavalry Division which will take over control of all of Baghdad from the 1st Armored Division in the next few weeks.

Its commanders have had more time than any other unit to prepare for their yearlong stint with Operation Iraqi Freedom 2.

Balke's patrol has three new armored Humvees. Almost every leader above the rank of sergeant has had cultural awareness training. All his men have brushed up on their infantry skills, which is critical since the battalion's 500 men are responsible for a neighborhood of more than 800,000 people.

Col. John Formica, Balke's brigade commander, said the 1st Cavalry is well-prepared to achieve the U.S. military's mission of establishing a stable, democratic government in Iraq...

U.S. officers still do what ordinarily would be a civilian government's job: approve public works projects, settle property disputes, make sure the police do their duty. But Formica has ordered his officers to make the Iraqi neighborhood councils and other leaders reach decisions on their own.

"The cultural authority rests in the sheiks. You have the Islamic law that rests with the imams, and then you have what we're trying to work -- the democratic law," Formica said.

"You reach back to your 11th and 12th years of education, where you studied problems of democracies and civics lessons ... It is exciting, and at times it is also bewildering -- the responsibility that you have and the influence you have on people -- but it is absolutely rewarding."..

Asked which is harder, fighting insurgents or teaching democracy, Formica laughed.

"I've trained for 22 years to do one," he said. "The other one just seems to come natural. Because we're Americans, we grew up with it."

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