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January 19, 2006

Live From Iraq: Ten questions

LEO: What are your long-term goals?
John Norris: My immediate goals are to take care of all 677 soldiers and get them back to the states safely. My near-term goals are to make this a safer and better place. Long-term, continue to serve in the Army as long as it continues to be fun and professionally rewarding.

LEO: What is “victory” for our side and what will bring “peace” there? Or is peace even the right word to use for what we’re trying to accomplish?
JN: This depends on who is defining victory. For some it would mean no more casualties and the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces. For others, including myself, it would mean that terrorists can’t gain popular support with the Iraqi people, and the Iraqi security forces, both police and army are strong in number and capable of providing security for the Iraqi people with a newly elected legitimate Iraqi government that serves the people and not a person.

LEO: How long will the U.S. military have to remain? How will we know when it’s time to leave?
JN: We need to stay as long as it takes to achieve the effects listed above. In five months serving in Iraq, I have seen enormous change and great progress but openly admit we are not ready to abandon all we have achieved. Our presence is required to allow the newly elected government to take seat and begin governing in accordance with their Iraqi constitution. The Iraqi Army and Police must be capable, independent operations, and protecting the citizens of Iraq. One year ago, none of this was possible because of overwhelming terrorist activity, but due to coalition support and Iraqi determination, steady gains were made, with security being established in many regions in Iraq. With improved security, free elections were possible. Now, we must help this new government gain footing and take full control.
We are now beginning to transition battlespace to Iraqi units where they conduct independent operations. Their progress is monitored closely, and several Iraqi Army units within my brigade have already assumed control of Iraqi areas of operation. The next several months, many more battalions within my brigade are scheduled for transition, including the two battalions that we support.

LEO: Has “civil war” begun? If so, can it be reversed?
JN: No. There are no indications that one is starting, either.

LEO: Is there any way to stop the insurgency/enemy? If so, how many bad guys are we talking about? Do you have to kill them all, or is there an alternative?
JN: We must have the support of the people to defeat the insurgency. This is possible when trust and confidence is established. It’s less about the coalition and more about trust and confidence in the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). When the people are confident that the ISF can protect them, this will deny the insurgents a base of operations. Actual numbers are difficult to predict, but we have small cells that operate and recruit young members who are naïve and looking for fast income provided by the cell leaders. We quickly identify these cells and systematically eliminate them, including their base of operations along with the assistance of the police and army forces. You do not have to kill them to stop the insurgency. I know of several terrorists or “former” terrorists who are monitored by Iraqi Police, similar to a U.S. parolee. These individuals are required to check in daily with the police; they sign a document stating that they no longer will participate in terrorist activities. They also have guarantors who are credible and represent the accused. In this culture, the family unit, the tribe, holds their family accountable. In these cases the tribal leaders are brought to the police station and informed they are now held liable for the actions of their family member. I was skeptical of this at first but have seen this work for numerous former terrorists.

LEO: How do you respond to those who say this war was unnecessary and has only fueled anti-U.S. sentiment in Iraq?
JN: I am a soldier and faithfully follow the orders of my superiors. I will not argue that our presence in Iraq is not welcome by all. I engage Iraqis all of the time on routine patrols; they are very candid and open in discussion. Many wish we would leave but are truly thankful for what we have done for them. I do not sense this is anti-U.S. sentiment but a sense of embarrassment that we must be here to help them rebuild their nation. Many have told me they do not want us to leave, they enjoy the security and are afraid of what may happen. They are tired of war and wish only to live a normal life without fear of terror and intimidation.

LEO: How does the general Iraqi population feel about our presence? Is that feeling getting better, or worse?
JN: There is obviously mixed opinion on our presence — this is true for Americans and Iraqis. I know many do not want us here and wish for us to move on. We work very hard to strengthen our relationships and continue to gain more trust daily. Gaining trust with the general Iraqi population is challenged by our past conflicts and actions. Not an easy task. Two wars and a long, sustained embargo, and we expect the Iraqis are excited that we are here? One point that must also be understood is that those loyal to Saddam Hussein lost favor, positions of status and their livelihood when the regime was dismantled. I do not believe the feelings of the population can be easily summarized by positive or negative; they have a broad range of feelings and emotions that have changed over time. Anger, hate, resentment, acceptance, appreciation and confidence. The feelings have changed over time just like the conditions. Tolerance is now more appropriate to describe what we have achieved recently and reflects the population’s growing feeling toward our presence. Our presence is invasive but necessary and accepted by most Iraqis.

LEO: How do your soldiers feel about their chances of success?
JN: The soldiers in my command are optimistic and see the gains we are achieving firsthand every day. They have established strong relationships with our partners. The soldiers conduct routine lethal and non-lethal operations with the police and army units and see the progress being made. I see and evaluate the readiness of the ISF but also get to see the gains with district level governance. The improvements with the mayors and city council members are significant, and now with the successful elections and the recent addition of the Department of State Provincial Reconstruction Teams, progress will continue.

LEO: What sense do you and your guys have about the level of support back home? What do you make of calls to withdraw ASAP?
JN: Outstanding support from the general population, our family readiness groups and many veterans organizations. Support, letters, packages, incredible and all well received. My battalion executive officer just returned from mid-tour leave, and he reported that he was overwhelmed with greetings and great appreciation at the airport and in Florida where he spent his vacation. This is a wonderful feeling.
Unfortunately, the same level of support is not reflected by most of the press and media. It is clear in Iraq that there is not popular support reflected in the media back home. There is more emphasis placed on negative sensational news designed to discredit our purpose and efforts than on the positive stories occurring every day. For example, we recently experienced a tragic loss in our brigade when a helicopter crashed, resulting in loss of life. One of my sister units responded to assist in recovery, with an attached embedded media representative. Before the personnel could be recovered and the next of kin officially notified, this story had already reached national news — it was flashing across the TV sets of all Americans. How could this have happened? It happened as a result of completely irresponsible and inconsiderate behavior of a single reporter seeking to exploit a sensational story at the expense of respecting the soldiers and family members who experienced this horrible loss. This action violated one of our most important values, respect. I am extremely proud of the performance of the soldiers that I serve with and how under the most intense and stressful situations they maintain their composure, always treating everyone with dignity and respect. This same character and value set that we place great importance on is now being transferred to the Iraqi forces. It would be welcome if the same level of respect was displayed toward the military.

LEO: Some say the war in Iraq is this generation’s Vietnam, that it is, in fact, just another quagmire from which there can be no successful exit. How would you respond?
JN: This is a defeatist attitude and not common among the ranks of the soldiers and leaders currently serving in Iraq. We are very optimistic and mission-focused by nature. There is nothing we cannot accomplish when provided the necessary resources, time and patience. We have the best personnel and equipment in the world. What we need for a successful exit is a strong and capable Iraqi Army, Iraqi Police and legitimate freely elected government that is capable of self-governance. Ensure that this new government has the continued support and backing of the most powerful nation in the world and we can achieve the conditions for a successful exit. To exit earlier than this would be premature and erase the gains achieved thus far.

Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com