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Iraqi Town Swirls With Calm, Dissent

Locals resent the U.S. presence but don't lash out. Mostly, they say they want jobs.

October 12, 2003|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

HIT, Iraq — The violent uprising in May against police and U.S. troops in this ancient Euphrates River town marked a low point for Americans struggling to bring order to Iraq. Rioters sacked the city hall, the police headquarters and turned on authorities for what locals still view as the humiliating house-to-house searches by American troops looking for weapons.

The intensity of that revolt makes the town's current calm and the progress toward normality all the more heartening for occupation authorities. The nightly curfew has been lifted, the streets are clean, the Americans have supervised a city council election and installed a more popular police chief.

U.S. Army Capt. Ed Palacios even became a local hero of sorts during the summer for the way he arranged special medical treatment for a 4-year-old girl terminally ill with cancer. Even though Teeba Ayaad died in Greece of lymphoma in July, Palacios was seen as a kind and caring American.

"I can't describe how much it meant for us what he did," said the girl's father, Ayaad Nafai Abid, a local shop owner. "He didn't act officially. It was like she was his own daughter."

"Conditions have improved significantly," said Maj. Jay Gallivan, operations officer for the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's 3rd Squadron, responsible for the area around Hit.

Yet, despite all this, there remains little sympathy here for the American presence. The mood stands as one more reminder of how tough it is for an occupying army to provide security, win public support and jump-start a society -- especially when a part of the population is actively resisting.

"The longer we're here, the more dissent starts to build," said Lt. Col. Gregory Reilly, commander of the regiment's 1st Squadron, which controls a vast swath of territory west of Hit. "They know why we came, but after a while they start asking, 'What's in it for me?' "

Reilly believes economic revival is key to reducing the resistance.

As with many towns that dot the Euphrates west of Baghdad, Hit's majority Sunni population lived well under Saddam Hussein, so there is little feeling here of being liberated by the Americans as there was in many Shiite communities, which were oppressed by the former government.

Speeches by the locally born Sheik Subhi Heeti at Friday prayers in Baghdad are remembered as some of the most fervently pro-Hussein rhetoric of the Hussein era.

But unlike the tension and nightly violence that have turned other Sunni-dominated towns such as Fallouja and Tikrit into guerrilla war zones, the resistance in Hit is more subtle -- expressed in body language, in statements of local pride and the graffiti on many of the town's walls and buildings.

"Down with Bush the foolish, long live Saddam," read one scrawled message. Another, in English, states simply: "Go out USA." Some messages are signed by an organization calling itself the Desert Fox Movement, a group that U.S. officers say is dedicated to sabotaging American efforts.

The main reason cited by residents for the easing of tensions in the town is that U.S. forces rarely enter in large numbers anymore. Still, frequent run-ins between locals and U.S. forces, mainly outside the town, have stoked anti-American feeling. Nazar Sami, director of the city's main public hospital, said several residents have been killed or wounded over the last five months in what townspeople describe as accidental confrontations with American forces born of misunderstanding.

"Most of it happens at checkpoints," he said.

Gallivan said two Iraqis have died at checkpoints on roads near the town -- one of them this month.

City Council chairman Khalil Jundi Mahmood recalled how Gallivan's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Henry "Butch" Kievenaar, offered his condolences for the most recent death in a meeting a few days after the incident. But locals said they were increasingly upset.

"It's not right," Mahmood said. "These are innocent people."

Residents also say the Americans have arrested innocent people after attacks on U.S. forces near the town. They say that many of those detained after one recent attack were simply awaiting help at a charity near the shooting. Those arrests even led Abid, grateful for the medical help for his daughter, to question the motives of U.S. forces.

"They took everyone who was there, even some who were crippled," Abid said. "They are in prison, handcuffed, and that's not fair. Why have they done that?"

Iraqis are not the only victims.

Last week, an American soldier was killed and two others wounded when a Humvee drove over an explosive device a few miles north of the town. Gallivan has shrapnel in his throat from a grenade attack in August that appeared to be an attempt to kill American officers and the town's recently appointed mayor.

Other factors, too, contribute to the tension -- such as the deflated expectations that locals say were raised by Americans assessing the town's needs in the weeks after they overthrew Hussein's regime.

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