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Army captain seeks to win friends in Baghdad neighborhood he patrols

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Alpha Company's motto is "Speed. Shock. Power. Violence. Attack."

But it also might read "People skills" or "Interpersonal relations."

Those are the tactics that the company's commander, Capt. Ike Sallee, uses to keep the peace in the southern Baghdad neighborhoods that Alpha Company patrols.

The company, part of the 4th Brigade of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, joined in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Its second, year-long tour of duty started last February.

Sallee, 31, of Kissimmee, Fla., summed up his mission this way: "Kill terrorists. Kill terrorists."

But it's not that simple.

"Who are the terrorists? I don't know who they are. If I did, they'd be dead," he said.

Which is where the people skills come in. Sallee is a true believer in winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. He hopes they'll become the eyes and ears to hunt down the terrorists.

His thinking is in sync with the Bush administration, which has been saying for a while that there's no purely military solution to the Iraq conflict. It's going to depend on building trust among Iraqis.

"Everyone out there is a potential informant. Or a potential insurgent," Sallee said. "If you really want to get this place secure, you've got to change perceptions. You really have to focus on changing people's minds."

"Because let's face it, it's hard for a Bradley (Fighting Vehicle) to be covert," he said.

Alpha Company's recent Operation Thunder is a good example of this.

It started with a diplomatic visit to Bahar Abd Allah Hussain, the battalion commander of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior commandos who'd be working with one of Sallee's platoons on the operation.

The mission was aimed at what Alpha Company calls chop shops, a neighborhood jammed with car repair businesses. The infantrymen were concerned that some of the mechanics might be doing work for insurgents who are using car bombs. But there was no hard intelligence behind the mission. No one was likely to be arrested.

The Iraqi commandos were keen on using what Sallee's officers call "kinetic force," or what his enlisted men call "blasting some s---."

Sallee was concerned that Hussain would think the chop shop visit would be a waste of time if no one got captured or blasted. But Sallee told him the mission was really about shaping perceptions.

"It will make the good people feel more secure. It will make the people thinking about doing the bad stuff leave the area," he said. "Every patrol is a mini-operation of good will."

Before they headed out, Sallee asked Hussain about his unit's logo. It's the Lion Brigade, the commander said.

Sallee has funded a sewing school in the neighborhood. Women in the school make soccer uniforms that Sallee gives to local kids. He would ask them to make a flag with a lion's head on it and give it to the commander as a gift, another mini-good will-building operation.

Then Sallee's men took a photo of Hussain. And they took some photos of themselves posing with the Iraqi commandos. One of the commandos offered to hold the hand of Sallee's driver, a custom among Iraqi men.

"I'm not holding his hand," the soldier said.

"C'mon," Sallee said. "He's hot. He's hot."

The photos would be downloaded into a hard drive back at the barracks already stuffed with images and contact information of all the major players in the neighborhood, photos of the weapons caches his men found, snapshots of the meetings at which Sallee stupefied Sunni and Shiite Muslim religious leaders with rich lunches and three-hour PowerPoint presentations.

Sallee's Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles and the Iraqi Dodge Ram pickups wound their way into the chop shop neighborhood, a warren of little shops stuffed with cars, parts, tools, men in greasy shirts and the constant sound of hammering on metal.

The Iraqi and American soldiers fanned out and started poking around. Some of Sallee's men climbed up on the rooftops so they could watch for any trouble. Sallee, who knows a few words of Arabic, approached the mechanics and greeted them in their language.

"Indak mobile?" he asked. Do you have a cell phone?

He started handing out business cards with a phone number. His unit plans on giving out thousands of the cards to make it easier for informants to call them with tips about insurgents without anyone seeing that they're talking to Americans. There's also an e-mail address.

Sallee schmoozed the curious mechanics like a politician running for re-election.

"Man, this is a nice car right here," he said, patting an Audi. "I'll give $100 for it."

"Want me to fix it? I'll fix it for you," he said, taking a car part out of the hands of a worker. "Mortar? Is that a mortar?" he said as two men walked by lugging an axle.

"These things take time," he said to one man who complained about a lack of electricity and water. "It's going to get better."

"Got doors for a Bradley?" he asked at another shop. "I'll special-order it."

But he carefully questioned the owner when he came to a shop with a drill press and a metal lathe, tools could be used to make sophisticated bombs intended to bust up armored vehicles.

Had anyone asked to have something made that involved copper or cylinders? Sallee wanted to know.

"No. No bomb," the shop owner said.

"I believe you. But I also believe that terrorists will ask for special things and you guys don't know what they're asking for," Sallee said. "If someone asks you to make something strange, I want you to call me. Do what they ask you to do, but call me."

He took a lot of photographs. He praised the Iraqi forces for the good job they did. But the soldiers didn't find any insurgents. "There's nothing cool about what we did today," Sallee said.

But about 500 cards had been passed out. "So that's 500 more people they (the insurgents) have to worry about," Sallee said.

Before he headed back to his barracks, he stopped at the local government office. In a dark, stuffy meeting room, he talked to a contractor who was working on a development project that Sallee was promoting.

He wanted to know whether the contractor knew anything about a sniper who'd shot an American soldier in the contractor's neighborhood a few days ago.

"The soldier died at the hospital. He had three kids and a wife," Sallee said quietly.

Sallee has two kids and wife. His mother is Korean. His dad is a retired high school math teacher. He and his sister joined the military to pay for their education. Sallee ended up at West Point. His sister is a doctor and an Air Force major.

Sallee also met with a neighborhood leader who gave him a list of people the man thought were involved with insurgents.

"Have you given this information to anyone else wearing my uniform?" Sallee asked. "Why did you wait to bring them over?"

"Sometimes I might get mad at you," he told the man.

"No, you are my brother," the man said.

"We are brothers," Sallee said. "I just came from a real estate office. I'm looking at buying a flat on Market Street. I just need the power, the water, the sewer and the phones to work."

"He likes to be here," Sallee's Iraqi interpreter said of his boss. "I'm not saying this because I work for him. I'm his personal interpreter, and I'm with him on every mission. This guy believes in what he's doing."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-CAPTAIN

Iraq

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