SAMAWAH, Iraq—While other U.S. troops were battling Tuesday to win control of Baghdad, commanders of the 82nd Airborne Division were beginning to give another city back.
A convoy of Army Humvees rolled up to a large beige, block house on the east side of the city of Samawah, about 120 miles south of Baghdad. It was the home of Hakim al Hukeen, a sheik who had just returned from 13 years of exile in Jordan. Several hundred men and boys from his extended family crowded the sandy driveway to greet the U.S. commander, Col. Arnold Bray.
Bray, a ramrod-straight, 6-foot-6 African-American, walked to the door amid a throng of men wearing earthen-tone robes and head scarves of both red and white and black and white checks. The meeting was a stark contrast to how U.S. troops entered the city 10 days earlier with bombs, artillery shells and machine-gun fire.
Bray and his staff are starting the transition from an Army occupation back to Iraqi self-rule. U.S. commanders have concluded that the local sheiks and their followers are the strongest organizations through which they can work. The 82nd's troops ousted the pro-Saddam Hussein militia and are turning to leaders in the majority Shiite Muslim community.
They sat on cushions around the walls of al Hukeen's "majlis," a long building used for such gatherings. The soldiers, a gaggle of desert camouflage, lined one end and the sheik's family ringed the other half, with standing room only back at the door. Others outside stretched to peer in the window.
"We are soldiers who came here to liberate this nation," Bray told the crowd, after apologizing for the suffering caused by the war. "We did not come to occupy. . . . We're trying to figure out how to let the people of Iraq and this region resume control of what you built and Saddam destroyed."
Al Hukeen and his family effusively praised the troops and pledged cooperation in establishing new leadership.
"We will make an administration to run the Samawah town," al Hukeen said through a translator. "We're going to sit down and talk about how."
Al Hukeen said he was chased out of Iraq when he opposed Saddam during the first Persian Gulf War. He saw his 13-year-old son, Raad, on Tuesday for the first time.
The two groups didn't spend any time on details. The Americans asked for help in identifying men who weren't associated with Saddam's regime and could form a new police force to help maintain security in the city when the troops leave. The Iraqis asked about reopening a central bridge in Samawah that U.S. troops have closed down.
Al Hukeen intervened and said it wasn't the time for specifics.
"I will arrange (a list of concerns) and bring the issues to you," al Hukeen said, as he cleared the center of the room for a feast.
Young men from the family brought in a parade of 2-foot-wide aluminum trays, each piled with a bed of rice and tomatoes supporting two legs of lamb and accompanied by fresh pitas.
"When you're in a place like this, you don't have social services or government help," said a U.S. official working in the area, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "When people need something they go to the sheik."
A father who was trying to get his son a job or money for surgery for his child would turn to the wealthy sheik, the official said. The sheik then uses his influence to help.
"We are now trying to make sure we leave in place your leadership to fix what has been broken and somehow try to reconcile some of the sadness that you feel," Bray told the group. "It will not be easy, and it will not happen overnight. But with your leadership and your commitment, this region will be as great as the people who compose it."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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