State Senator files special report from Baghdad

Friday, October 24th 2008, 11:15 pm
By: News 9

State Senator Steve Russell left Oklahoma City Friday to travel back to the war zone with Time Magazine. The retired Lieutenant Colonel is heading to the Middle East to compare and contrast what Iraq is like now with what Iraq was like 5 years ago.

He wrote an article about a day he spent in an Iraqi market place where six months ago, soldiers could expect to be shot at. Today, that market place is teaming with shops, good and friendly people trying to earn a living.

A market day in Baghdad by Steve Russell, for NEWS 9

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The Bayaa market in the West Rashid District of Baghdad is one of the oldest market streets in Iraq.  Anything and everything can be found, well almost.  The style or the quality may not be the best, but the most decent attempt at anything can be found.  A year ago, or even six months ago, you could expect to be shot at, but not today. 

Inside the Bayaa Market
Lt. Col. Matt Elledge has taken the West Rashid District by the horns. Capitalizing on the success of the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry under Lt. Col. Pat Frank last year, Elledge's battalion quickly established dominance in the heavily contested area.    Now, that dominance has transitioned into diplomacy as Iraqis have also taken their own fate by the horns. 

The Rashid District, representing roughly one million Iraqis in southeastern Baghdad, has one of the most successful cooperative efforts of Sons of Iraq, National Police, and community leader groups.  The result has been impressive.

When Lt. Col. Elledge arrived for his third tour in Iraq as the commander of Task Force 1-22 Infantry, Firas Qasim was on the list of most wanted in the area.  Now he is on the list of the most helpful.  He is the twenty-nine year old leader of the local ‘Sons of Iraq,' an organized reconciliation group that now fights for the new Iraqi nation.  The work that the Sons of Iraq have done in West Rashid has been pivotal in securing the district. 

In the last few weeks, Firas and his men have helped discover large caches of weapons, locate criminal elements and insurgents, and have kept a vigilant eye on the community to spot any kind of trouble.  Elledge and local Iraqi leadership have been quick to recognize the difference their work has made.

"We're going to put the Sons of Iraq into the government system" informed Brigadier General Bahaa Noori Yaseen, the West Rashid District's National Police Commander.  "Once he feels he is a part of the government, he will perform in the right way.  Now, we are showing him how to work, how to be in the right uniform, how to make a good relationship with the people."

General Bahaa is also another reason Rashid has made a turn around.  Dynamic, smiling and with an easy style that exudes confidence, Bahaa appears to have restored hope among the locals, who clearly see their own police protecting them throughout the district.  As we walked the market with the general, Iraqis would call out to him with hands over their hearts or ask about when the concrete barriers could be removed that have been instrumental in containing traffic so the police could secure the area.  He tells them to continue to be patient or thanks them for their kind words.

"We could not have done this six months ago," said Lt. Col. Elledge.  "We would draw fire after standing here only a few minutes." 

In the two hours we lingered at the market, the only sound we heard was the banter of locals shopping and working and a few generators augmenting the electricity in the market.  Gone were the insurgents sniping from the hundreds of balconies jutting from crowded floors in scores of squat apartment buildings.  Present were crowded shops loaded with goods teaming well into the sidewalks, a sign that business has been good.

Walking the streets, my instincts as a former combat infantryman in Iraq were tuned to view the alleys, the balconies and the lounging men in recessed corners.  Before long, with men relaxed moving arm and arm in conversation, or women bustling to look at shoes or handbags, and kids scurrying from place to place, my eyes became tuned to different things altogether.  Mannequins stood adorned in trendy fashions, a wide selection of cell phones filled a display case, a fruit smoothie shop offered refreshment to passersby and music pounded from local CD shops.  Rather than stare in fear or hate, the locals offered their wares or tasty morsels with smiles and waves. 

Whatever can be debated about the security situation in Iraq, it can be answered with what I saw on the markets streets of Bayaa in the West Rashid District of Baghdad. 

Steve Russell was recently elected to the Oklahoma State Senate.  He is a U.S. Army retired Lieutenant Colonel who commanded an infantry battalion in Iraq that was a central player in the hunt and capture of Saddam Hussein.