The U.S. Institute of Peace today honored soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division for their role in achieving a local peace accord in Iraq that offers a model for potential peacemaking and stabilization in the aftermath of ISIS. The peace agreement, in 2007, halted communal fighting in the region of Mahmoudiya, in an area that had been known as the “Triangle of Death.” The accord continues to underpin the relative stability of that area a decade later.
The 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team served in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad, in 2006 and 2007 amid fighting between Sunni and Shia tribes and violence by al-Qaida. The unit lost 54 soldiers during a year of efforts to suppress the violence, before officers sought out USIP and its Iraqi partners to initiate a peace process among 31 tribal leaders.
The Brigade Combat Team was represented in the award ceremony by its former commander, retired Colonel Michael Kershaw; its former deputy commander, retired Colonel John Laganelli; and its former senior non-commissioned officer, retired Command Sergeant Major Anthony Mahoney. Other former members of the unit also attended.
They were honored by an audience that included U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Congressman Chris Stewart of Utah, and former U.S. ambassadors to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and James Jeffrey.
“It’s not often enough that we have an opportunity to really reflect back and look at pivotal actions that turned the page on a violent conflict,” USIP President Nancy Lindborg said. “And it’s even more rare that we have an opportunity to honor those who made it happen.”
USIP has worked in Iraq since 2003, providing financial and technical assistance to civic groups and government institutions involved in peacebuilding efforts. Initiatives include local reconciliation in areas recaptured from ISIS, support for Iraqi minorities, helping facilitate police-community dialogues, and informing policy discussions.
The Mahmoudiya accord “is an example of the inestimable value that is offered when the disparate instruments of American foreign policy work together for a common objective—hard power and soft power,” said Stephen J. Hadley, the chairman of USIP’s board and a former U.S. national security advisor to President George W. Bush. Hadley noted that the calming of violence in Mahmoudiya directly contributed to a dramatic drop in casualties of both American soldiers and Iraqi military and civilians. The agreement held and allowed the U.S. military to reduce its force in the area from nearly 3,500 troops to about 650.
In a panel discussion during the ceremony today, Kershaw recalled arriving in the area in August 2007 to find significant inter-tribal conflict and a particularly volatile triangular area of 450,000 people in one part of Mahmoudiya. Rusty Barber, USIP’s current director of program development and operations who co-led the USIP effort with other staff and Iraqi partners, said the social fabric as well as the infrastructure of Mahmoudiya had been destroyed by warfare.
“We didn’t know who, specifically, was pulling the strings, or at least where we did, we couldn’t get to them,” Laganelli said. “That’s where USIP came into the picture later in the deployment. They were able to figure out and show us who the real power brokers were.”
Retired Lieutenant Colonel William Zemp of the 101st Airborne Division 3rd Brigade Combat Team noted that the communities involved have successfully navigated four major tests since the agreement was signed, including violent retribution by al-Qaida for finally rejecting its extremism and most recently the pressures emanating from the ISIS onslaught to the north.
“Agreements like this are hard to come by,” Graham said. “But most people want to move forward in their lives, and they just need our help … This program is a living testament to the idea that we can bring about stability. It won’t be easy. It will be costly. But you pay now or you pay later.”
USIP specialists and other analysts say similar peace processes that have produced such agreements among tribal leaders in Tikrit, Yathrib and Hawija offer a model for calming Iraq following the ouster of the self-styled Islamic State.
“The relative stability of the Mahmoudiya region following the accord is a step toward the broader peace in Iraq that will serve the interests of Iraqis, Americans and people worldwide,” Hadley said.