In a dim, chilly tent, illuminated only by a single fluorescent tube and the gray winter light creeping in through the front flap, Lieutenant Colonel Mario Diaz sits across the table from sheik Hussein al-Tamini, an influential Shia sheik in the rural region northwest of Baghdad, sipping Pepsi and trading pleasantries.

Diaz made the drive to combat outpost Courage for this meeting from his headquarters at Camp Liberty, which is part of the staggeringly vast Baghdad airport military complex southwest of here. The string of camps that surround and abut the airport house a number of different American bases that are kept running by an army of civilian contractors who are protected by Ugandan guards, all of whom live in a world carved into shape by rows of high concrete T-walls that separate the complex into discrete cells of activity. The place is so cut off from the country that surrounds it that it could be anywhere—Kosovo, Korea, Afghanistan, or Alaska—but out here, at Courage, there’s no such separation. Plopped down in a farm field and ringed simply by a row of T-walls no more than the size of two city blocks, Courage is unmistakably part of today’s Iraq.

Diaz and Sheik Hussein are still feeling each other out, performing the slow dance that Arab culture dictates strongmen perform with each other—complimenting, then pushing, declaring friendship, then starting all over again. “I purposefully have met with very few people in the first couple weeks,” Diaz tells him, “because I first want to meet with important people.” The sheik, this implies, is one of these important people. It’s a nice gambit in this year-old counterinsurgency campaign that places emphasis on building relationships at the local level, in hopes that each new brick will build a strong enough wall to keep law-abiding Iraqis on one side, and insurgents, terrorists, and foreign fighters on the other. Mainstream press coverage of this new reality in Iraq has been seriously limited, with fewer reporters in Iraq generally, fewer out in the field embedded with troops, and, frankly, overshadowed by the U.S. presidential campaign back home.

Diaz is the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion “Gimlets” of the 21st Infantry, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. At the time of this meeting in late January, the 2nd SBCT had only been in country for a little over a month, and was still going through the arduous process of getting to know the local power players—something that takes many meetings, gallons of tooth-achingly sweet chai, and lots of expressions of mutual trust, admiration, and respect.

Sheik Hussein, involved in the Sons of Iraq [SOI] movement, as all sheiks are, informed Diaz that some SOI checkpoints had recently been fired on by people he says were Shia fighters, part of a rival “awakening” movement that had been infiltrated by al Qaeda, and that his people were investigating the incident and would turn over the names of suspects soon. Unconfirmed rumors to be sure, but I heard enough rumblings among some officers that the Sunni al Qaeda had started to team up with elements of the Shia Madhi militia, a development that has the potential to sow chaos in the mixed region.

No officer or NCO on the ground I spoke with had any illusions about who it is they’re dealing with when working with the sheiks or the SOI. “In my mind,” Captain Glen Helberg, commanding officer of Charlie Company at Courage told me one afternoon, “the biggest challenge for me is that we’re not able to hold together this very loose coalition of IPs (Iraqi police), IAs (Iraqi Army), SOIs, and us. If we’re not able to maintain that, then the SOI guys can take their weapons, go home, pull their IEDs out of the garage and go back to what they were doing. We know that there are guys in the SOI who were attacking IPs and coalition forces a year ago. So in my mind the biggest fear is that we can’t integrate these guys into the government and into society quick enough.”

But they’re trying, and finding some success. In my few days at Courage, I accompanied Captain Helberg to several fruitful meetings with SOI leaders, local sheiks, and the area IP commander, all in the name of building trust among the groups.

But there’s always the matter of the Iraqi government. “Abu Ghraib has been left behind,” Sheik Hussein says, noting that the Iraqi government has done nothing to help with water, electricity, and rebuilding projects in the area. The government, he says, is corrupt, and is like a “a human body, but they have cancer everywhere.”

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.