U.S. commander in Kirkuk lowers profile, raises popularity

July 9, 2008 

KIRKUK, Iraq — For the past 11 months Col. David Paschal has back-slapped, noogied and high-fived his soldiers. He's been kissed on both cheeks by local Iraqis, and he's upbraided or atta-boyed his counterparts in the Iraqi army and police. He's sent his gunfighters after the "bad guys."

He's balanced that with a reconciliation program for about 350 former insurgents, a six-step process that's becoming something of a model for other provinces.

Paschal, 46, a Chicago native, is the senior U.S. military officer in Kirkuk, a city of 800,000 some 155 miles northeast of Baghdad. He commands a brigade in the 10th Mountain Division, an Army division whose units have been sent overseas more than any other in the past 20 years.

Kurds dominate the province, but there are Sunni Muslim Arabs, Turkmens, Chaldean Christians and others here too. Part of his job has been to coax Sunni Arabs who'd boycotted politics for several months back into the government.

Paschal is trying to prepare the province for the day that the 3,500 men and women in his ranks depart. With four months to go, the signs in the province — roughly the size of Rhode Island — are promising. Violence is down by 90 percent in some villages, and a sense of fragile confidence has returned to markets and mosques throughout the area.

The number of so-called "significant acts" by insurgents fell to 105 in May from 350 last July. Also in May, soldiers in Paschal's brigade found 66 homemade bombs, down 76 percent from 277 a year earlier. A crucial oil pipeline patrolled by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers carried 13 million barrels in May and June, more than before the war.

Even with those improvements, Paschal wears his body armor and Kevlar helmet and slings his M-4 rifle over his shoulder when he strolls the markets. His security detail shadows him on the sidewalk and from armored Humvees as he takes the temperature of the town.

He has good reason: On one of his recent market walks in southern Kirkuk, a Sunni Arab sniper wounded one of Paschal's turret machine-gunners in the shoulder. Besides those Sunnis who feel disenfranchised by the Kurds, U.S. adversaries include remnants of the group al Qaida in Iraq — whose members fled north after Sunni tribal leaders turned against it last year in Anbar province.

As in other once-restive provinces, the Americans have co-opted some insurgents by inducting them into a U.S.-backed militia called Sons of Iraq. The Sons of Iraq are paid if they turn in hostile fighters and penalized if homemade bombs go off in their neighborhoods, and their absence from the fight — however temporary — has helped drive down the violence.

Paschal's superiors say they approve of his actions. Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, the commander of the 1st Armored Division, in charge of all four northern Iraq provinces, said Paschal's program for training the Iraqi army in medical treatment, logistics, supplies, ammunition and fuel "is the model I'm going to try to use throughout the (northern) sector."

Kirkuk may be the only province in Iraq in which the police force functions almost like its American counterpart, proactively seeking to prevent crime and terrorist acts while trying to serve and protect citizens. Recently, Paschal helped dedicate a new major crime-unit facility in the city, aimed at helping police bring cases to court against detainees based on evidence, not whim or ethnic affiliation. "It highlights the importance of the rule of law," Paschal said, "and will stand as an example to the rest of Iraq on what you can establish when you establish security."

One of Paschal's most popular actions among the local population is to lower the U.S. military's profile. On his direct orders, brigade vehicles no longer hog the center of streets or roads but drive normally in the right lanes, which he said was part of the broader U.S. shift from combat to nonlethal operations. "I always tell my soldiers that our actions speak much louder than our words," he said recently on a local call-in TV show in Kirkuk. Nevertheless, Iraqi cars and trucks still pull over and stop for oncoming convoys.

Paschal stands 6 feet 6, with a type "A" personality to match his oversize frame. That works within his brigade. Soldiers expect a headlock and noogie — after a bear hug — when he meets them at a remote communications-retransmission outpost set atop a lunar landscape.

A few months back, to test his military police officers, he donned a dishdasha — the flowing robe that soldiers call a "man dress" — and parked himself in a detainee cell on base. After hurling water, food and insults through the bars at guards, he fought fiercely for several seconds before five of them tackled him and flex-cuffed his hands and feet. "You want some more or you had enough?" he joked with the men later, as he palmed prized unit coins into their hands.

But type A doesn't necessarily work in counter-insurgency. "The typical U.S. military officer is an ultra-type A personality, and that generally is a good thing for getting things done, but sometimes is detrimental," said Michael Noonan, the managing director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former Army captain in northern Iraq in 2006-07. "Counterinsurgency is like jujitsu, and impatience by the counterinsurgent can lead to bad decisions."

A Kurdish Iraqi army major angered Paschal so much by failing to induct some 200 Sunni Arabs into basic training — men badly needed if the Iraqi army is to stand up while Americans stand down — that he stomped out of his office without farewell or handshake. He also refused to ride in two air-conditioned SUVs that the major provided and walked the half-mile back to his own vehicles in 108-degree heat. "He's a pretty boy," he fumed about the major.

Paschal is "a throwback to John Wayne," said Staff Sgt. Margaret Nelson, whose father served 30 years in the Navy. "He's father of the brigade, the orchestrator." Added Sgt. 1st Class Keven Duncan: "He's a wild guy. But for a full-bird colonel to try to know the names of all his soldiers and to ask about their kids. ... "

He also has an irrepressible side. He recently gave Maj. Gen. Hertling a bumper sticker: "Friends don't let friends drive car bombs."

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