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Policing Isn't Black and White in Baghdad

May 20, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — U.S. Army Pfc. Ryan Heithoff stood at the shuttered entrance of an auto repair shop Monday afternoon, pressed his shotgun barrel against the lock and fired. A tremendous boom thundered through the afternoon's baking heat. He repeated the action, blasting away a second lock, and struggled to pry open a blue metal barrier.

All at once, a hail of bullets shot out from within. Heithoff and three comrades did a dance and scattered, two of them already wounded in the leg but still shooting.

A half-hour gunfight followed, with most of the lead thrown by the Americans. When it was over, the car shop door was Swiss cheese, luxury cars inside were damaged, and the soldiers found no proof of any misdeeds and made no arrests.

Welcome to the wild world of law enforcement, Baghdad-style.

U.S. troops, with little knowledge of the city, are on the beat here -- chasing down suspected gun dealers, looters, curfew breakers, car thieves and drug dealers -- and stepping on the toes of some Iraqi civilians in the process.

Mistakes are made, but the troops argue that their proactive stance is the only way -- however clumsy -- to bring order to a city crying out for security.

The new American civil administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, said restoring order is his top priority and denies that the country is in a state of anarchy.

He and other U.S. officials say about 10,000 Iraqi police officers have been called back to duty. But few are visible, and in most cases they have no cars, phones, weapons or training on how they are supposed to operate in the new post-Baathist reality that is U.S.-occupied Iraq.

In practice, it is only the thin green line of U.S. troops providing any semblance of control over this restive country -- and often that is not enough. Two days of riding with a platoon of Army scouts showed how terrifying, confusing and frustrating the work can be, both for the soldiers and for the civilian population.

Heithoff, an 18-year-old from Des Moines in the Army for only a year, was the point man for the operation at the car repair shop. He was part of a squad headed by 27-year-old Staff Sgt. Nathan Gaines, who was out to break up what he had been told was a chop shop for stolen cars.

All day Monday, Gaines and his five-man team of scouts (accompanied by an Iraqi interpreter nicknamed Gus) had been driving around in a big white bus, looking for criminals to arrest in the mixed commercial-residential sector of east-central Baghdad that was under their supervision.

The civilian bus, driven by Gaines, was a bit of subterfuge. Confiscated earlier from looters, it had thick blue curtains and a picture of a respected Shiite religious leader in the back, making it unlikely that anyone would suspect U.S. soldiers were inside -- the better to swoop down on suspected wrongdoers who might have retreated the moment they heard an Army Humvee in the vicinity.

Back of Bus Fills Up

As the day wore on, the back of the bus began to fill with prisoners adorned with improvised nylon cord handcuffs and looks of shock that they had been seized and taken aboard with such sudden fury.

Those held included an old man operating a truck filled with bits of steel and furnishings stripped from a just-looted government building, two young men caught emerging from a business area the soldiers called "Looterville," another young man seized on the street when he was spotted with a bayonet sticking out from under his shirt, and a middle-aged man who had just exited a bombed-out bank building where looters have been active (although his son, about 13, bawled that his father had only gone inside to relieve himself; Gaines eventually let the terrified father go).

The last arrest before the car shop shooting was of two men -- one bare-chested -- whom Gaines said he had seen fighting from his driver's seat vantage. "Be gentle with the one in the gray shirt! He may have been doing something right," Gaines shouted to his troops.

Most of the arrests were clouded by some element of ambiguity -- and, in some cases, summary justice. The man with the truck filled with looted materials claimed he was only renting it out, but the soldiers put two incendiary grenades on its engine block anyway to destroy it and its contents.

Gus, a man in his late 50s, scornful of danger, relayed all this in a weary voice.

"They don't realize that they are destroying their own country," he said of the suspects as they were taken off the bus single file and turned over to military police at an American-run jail near the center of the city. Most will eventually be tried in Iraqi courts that began running again in recent days.

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