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Cero: On the ground in Iraq

Reservist sends his views

Mercer Islander Mike Cero, a Gulf War veteran and military reservist is stationed in Iraq. Last October, he left his wife, Susie Cero, and three children, Olivia, Sophia and Will, all under 10, and a house still under construction, when he was recalled to his position as a captain with the U.S. Army's Combat Engineers. The Reporter received this e-mail last week just before the vote on the Iraqi Constitution. He writes about not only his experiences in the Middle East, but about serving with other Americans and allies from many countries in the Coalition Forces.

I recently enjoyed leave after nine months in Iraq assigned with a Mississippi National Guard Armored Brigade. I had such a great time seeing family, friends and just doing the Mercer Island thing: QFC, soccer games, back to QFC, soccer practices, bus stops and of course, Starbucks. Needless to say, Seattle's cool temperatures and green landscape are a pleasant change from Iraq's harsh eye-searing desert and dust covered Euphrates/Tigris River basin.

My deployment (here in Iraq) is rich with experiences. I have had met up with many soldiers with whom I served in the First Gulf War to say nothing of connecting up with many long lost classmates. Service with the Mississippians is an honor and an unexpected introduction to a somewhat foreign culture. I have a list of colorful sayings that are priceless. Mississippians have a gift of gab that puts this lone Evergreen Yankee at a distinct disadvantage. National Guardsmen are true citizen-soldiers. It's not a far stretch to say this unit has the advantages and disadvantages of having grown up together since grade school. Needless to say, the Mississippians get the job done differently than those in active units. The "Mississippian Rifles" show great courage leaving the wire focused on the mission while many of their families recover from Katrina.

The services (here) are truly combined. My Brigade serves with a Marine Headquarters. ``Deck, aye aye, hatch, head and all hands'' are common jargon in our halls. I have the pleasure of working with a Navy Seabee detachment and I just can't say enough about the Marines. Marines are true professional warriors. We have fun with the Air Force with their 30,000 foot perspective and definition of field duty.

We all know the history and traditions that make the English valued allies. The surprise is the El Salvadorians. Feel confident if ever you find yourself in a situation having the English on your left hand and the El Salvadorians on your right. Bosnia's mine clearing and ordinance disposal expertise is also invaluable.

The fighting in Iraq is a classic counter insurgency war. There are roughly three camps; those who support, those who are non-committal and those who do not support the new government. Those who cause violence against Iraqis and Coalition Forces are generalized as Islamic fundamentalists, Ba'athist sympathizers or criminals. The Islamic fundamentalists will never convert to democratic ideals. They use suicidal weapons to disrupt the process.

The last violent group consists of criminals, but sometimes simple farmers and unemployed locals. Often, this group must decide between putting food on the table or attacking Coalition Forces. A large destroyed munitions factory is located in my area. Without this factory, many residents are unemployed. Without work, these former munitions workers will place explosives as a means of feeding their families.

The Sunni Shia fault line goes right through my unit's area. Our southern half has a completely different flavor than the northern half. The south is predominately Shia, highlighted by the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. Sunnis reside in the north with a high concentration of former Ba'athists. Security in the south has enabled Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and the State Department to manage more and more of the military's civil projects. Projects are prioritized to improve a long neglected infrastructure.

Operations in the north are more kinetic and require a delicate balance. I am continually impressed as young officers and NGOs diplomatically conduct business with local Sheiks and Imams, then hours later nimbly transition to combat operations. Iraq is a hands on crash course in political science for these young soldiers.

Limiting my perspective to the Mississippian's area, Iraqis continue to make progress in developing their security apparatus and bureaucracies. When we arrived in January, the Iraqi army and police, for all practical purposes, did not exist. Now, all our operations are joint. Iraqi forces still have a long way to go, but now we have army battalions, local police, highway patrols, border police and fixed security forces. Training people to kick down doors is easy. The real challenge is developing the logistical tail to keep the Iraqi security forces equipped, fed and paid. Next is the judicial system. Recently, we pulled attorneys from our unit to help in developing local courts. These organizations will never perform to the level that we expect, but that is a level not required now. Cultural differences sometimes blur progress.

The upcoming October 15th referendum and December 15th national elections are important events. Everything in Iraq is hard. Establishing an inherently inefficient process such as democracy is frustratingly difficult. Regardless of the outcome, simply having the elections is progress. Every local and national election builds institutional knowledge that we in the United States take for granted. All of the who, what, when, where, why and the how of voting is new for Iraq.

Daily operations develop with more and more of an Iraqi face. The October 15th referendum and the December 15th national elections are the culmination of months of planning. The challenge is keeping a bunch of Type A military types from getting too involved. We are ready to let go of the bicycle seat. Inevitably, we will run along the bike for many years, but the Iraqis will do the pedaling.

Iraq has potential. Of course everyone associates oil with Iraq. Possibly more important than oil, Iraq has water. Iraqis are relatively educated, industrious and they are not afraid to work under extreme conditions. Iraq's success is crowded with every conceivable obstacle. Obviously I don't want to spend 15 months away from my family on a failed mission. Because of this investment, I am hopeful that Iraq will succeed.

Mike Cero

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