In Baghdad, Army Adapts to Try to Win Over Civilians
BAGHDADThe Army is adapting tactics and technology to try to avoid needlessly making enemies among the civilian population as soldiers hunt insurgents and militia gunmen. On a recent raid, that meant knocking on a home's door rather than breaking it down and humiliating the occupants. And soldiers employed a new high-tech identity-verification device to avoid detaining Iraqis not suspected of being combatants.
The new measures were used during Operation Arrowhead Strike 9, a 34-day effort to clear insurgents and armed extremists from two largely Sunni neighborhoods in West Baghdad, Ameriyah, and Mansour.
Just before dawn one day this week, U.S. soldiers from the 3/2 Stryker Brigade skirted piles of trash and obstacles that residents had put in the streets to deter car bombs. Following his soldiers into a two-story concrete house, brigade commander Col. Steve Townsend noted their efforts to use "soft entry" methods that avoid breaking down doors.
"We have modified our tactics over time," he said. "We try to avoid alienating people, since many of the searches turn out to be dry holes."
Friend or Foe?
Inside the house, a father smoked nervously as he answered soldiers' questions. His family huddled on cushions nearby. He professed to know nothing about two dead bodies, bound and gagged, with bullets to the head, that lay in the street outside the housea clear sign that all is not well in this corner of the Ameriyah neighborhood. The father gave several different explanations about the stash of medical equipment found in a back room. Various tips indicated that enemy fighters might have been treated at the house.
In earlier days, the man might have been taken away for further questioning. It is hard to tell friend from foe in this kind of conflict, and often the innocent have been rounded up along with insurgents. That has made many Iraqis fearful of the Americans and has fueled hostility when some people are wrongly detained for an extended time. In other cases, insurgents have been caught and released in an often frustrating cycle as soldiers try to piece together solid evidence of criminal activity and the culprits' identities. Now, the brigade carries small hand-held devices to collect retinal scans, fingerprints, and photographs of suspects that can be used to determine whether they are wanted men.
The device is called HIDE, an acronym for Handheld Interagency Identification Detection Equipment. The data on an individual are uploaded into a master database known as the Biometric Automated Toolset. If a suspect is already in the system, a red light will go on in the hand-held device. The father in Ameriyah did not light up the scanner.
Lower Death Rate
Townsend says that Operation Arrowhead Strike 9 has succeeded in bringing down the number of Iraqi deaths in the Mansour neighborhood and especially in Ameriyah, where several Sunni insurgent groups are known to operatesometimes clashing with one another. Some 120 Iraqis were detained over the past 34 days, of whom 46 were held. Several hundred weapons, tons of munitions, and bomb-making materials were also seized.
But Townsend says just as important is that Iraqi security forces are now patrolling the Ameriyah neighborhood. "Before we started this operation, Iraqi forces did not even come into Ameriyah," he says. The Iraqis were hunkered down in a checkpoint at its entrance, where they came under periodic sniper fire.
On the final sweep through Mansour, Townsend's battalion commander, Lt. Col. Van Smiley, warmly greeted the tall Iraqi brigade commander, Col. Ghassan Khalid, with whom he has been working daily. In Arab fashion, they kissed each other's cheeks four times before discussing their plan of action. Smiley's troops had just sealed off a street to search a vacant house that had been opened by a tearful neighbor.
With the help of a U.S. military interpreter, U.S. News asked the woman in a gold-trimmed black robe why she was crying.
"The owners trusted me to take care of the house, and I am afraid they will break something," she said of the soldiers who filed through the house but did not find the rumored weapons. Heeding her pleas, the soldiers rehung the black iron gate, which had been torn off its hinges in an earlier raid.
In military terms, the day's results were modest: A German-built bunker was found, with Saddam-era uniforms and boots. Hundreds of rounds of ammunition, along with machine guns and body armor, were found at the Grand Rahman mosque.
More important was the renewed commercial activity in Mansour, once the city's upscale shopping district, as well as a few signs that Iraqis are beginning to take charge of their own affairs. A visit to the district police station found a new chief in chargea surprise to both the U.S. and the Iraqi soldiers. Commanders are frequently rotated or summarily fired, as was one Army commander after last week's car bomb in the Rusafa district. The U.S. military police lieutenant assigned to be the Mansour chief's adviser said she would introduce him at the daily meeting that is used to knit together the joint U.S.-Iraqi military and police effort to bring security to Baghdad.
Protecting the Sunnis
Next to the police station, the headquarters of the Iraqi Islamic Partythe major Sunni political organizationis a fortified compound with pillbox lookouts and armed guards who drive official-looking white pickups topped with red and blue lights. Maj. Jesse Pearson, the operations officer of the Stryker battalion, recounted an earlier visit to check to see whether the guards' AK-47 rifles were duly registered and to confiscate the illegal heavy guns.
The IIP is under siege from the Shiite militia, which expanded its reach into western Baghdad last year, and from al Qaeda in Iraq, which (though also Sunni) considers the IIP leaders as traitors for their participation in elections and the Iraqi parliament.
As the Americans approached the front gates, the armed guards pointed their weapons.
"We told them that they do not have anything to fear from this uniform," Pearson said, plucking his shirt. "We are just trying to make sure they are following Iraqi law."
Indeed, the Sunni minority calls frequently to U.S. military headquarters downtown in search of protection from its armed opponents.
Smiley's unit has been all over Baghdad clearing the nastiest neighborhoods since December, when the Strykers drove down from Mosul as the leading edge of the American "surge" strategy in the capital. The unit's fast, armored vehicles outfitted with the latest computerized equipment are made for patrolling bad neighborhoods. Smiley's men have been testing Tacticoms, a digital device that registers a soldier's movement as he walks through the streets. From a computer screen in the Stryker, a commander can see where each of his men is in the honeycomb of the city.
Smiley believes that Baghdad can only be secured this wayblock by block, alongside Iraqi forces. He appeals for the United States not to pull the plug on the effort: "If you'll just give us more time to do what we're doing, I believe we'll get the Iraqis over the hump."
But for that, he is talking about a few more years, not months.