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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Joint U.S.-Iraqi Patrols Are Getting Off on Wrong Foot

July 05, 2004|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

BAQUBAH, Iraq — The squad of U.S. soldiers waited impatiently to embark on a joint foot patrol with Iraqi police last week through the streets of this hostile city.

Military commanders hoped the sight of Americans and Iraqis walking side by side would symbolize the start of the transfer of control over security back to Iraqis.

The Iraqis didn't see it that way. Loath to be seen marching through their hometown with heavily armed Americans, none of them showed up.

"Is this a joint patrol, or what?" Capt. Chris Solinsky, the patrol leader, said into his shortwave radio. "Where are the Iraqis?"

Ten minutes later, eight unhappy-looking police officers joined the U.S. squad and reluctantly began the patrol.

"Great," Solinsky said dryly. "Sovereignty is bringing us together."

After that, it was a game of red-light-green-light, with the Iraqis staying at least 20 feet away from the U.S. soldiers. When the Americans stopped to allow the Iraqis to catch up, the Iraqis would stop too.

The Iraqis don't want to appear to be working for the Americans, and they also know that being next to a U.S. soldier can be dangerous. Two Americans were killed two weeks ago while on patrol in Baqubah.

When Solinsky suggested that a couple of the Iraqi officers split off down a side street, all eight disappeared down the road.

"Most of my guys would prefer to do this alone," said Lt. Col. Assaf Kamel, leader of the patrol's Iraqi contingent. "And the people of the city would rather see us do it alone."

With the political hand-over complete, U.S. military leaders are shifting their efforts to transferring control over Iraq's security to the nation's fledgling police forces.

Under a United Nations resolution, the U.S. remains the ultimate power for protecting Iraq, but military leaders hope to shift that responsibility to Iraqi police and the Iraqi National Guard over the next three to six months. The first step is incorporating Iraqi forces into the U.S.-led coalition's activities and increasing the number of joint operations, such as the foot patrol.

But as the Americans and Iraqis in Baqubah are learning, sharing a job can be more complicated than doing it alone. The evolving relationship between U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces is fraught with mutual frustration, miscommunication and misunderstandings.

"I really want to reduce our presence in the city. We are assuming an advisory role, a support role," said Col. Dana Pittard, commander of the 1st Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team in Baqubah. "But at the same time, we're not going to let this place turn into a Fallouja," he added, referring to the insurgent stronghold where Marines withdrew after a bloody siege. The hand-over of security responsibilities comes at a time of escalating violence by insurgents in Baqubah, a city in the so-called Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad. In June, more than 165 roadside bombs were uncovered in the region, the highest number in Iraq, Pittard said. One such bomb, which was defused, was made from 500 pounds of TNT, enough to destroy a Bradley fighting vehicle.

Foreign fighters are also believed to have infiltrated the city. U.S. intelligence indicated that Jordanian-born fugitive Abu Musab Zarqawi, whom U.S. leaders have labeled the mastermind of a wave of attacks in Iraq, was in Baqubah sometime over the last 10 days, Pittard said.

In an effort to bolster local forces, Pittard took the unprecedented step last week of arming local police officers with rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. Iraqi police requested the weapons, saying they needed to be at least as well armed as the insurgents.

"It's weird to see police walking around with RPGs on the shoulder, but it's given them more confidence to stay and fight," said Sgt. Richard St. Clair of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team.

In the coming months, Pittard plans to include Iraqis in all patrols. His boss, Maj. Gen. John Batiste, has set a tentative target date of October to transfer day-to-day responsibility for security to Iraqis.

Toward that aim, U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police in Baqubah last week launched one of their first post-occupation missions: a late-night raid on a village in a palm grove south of the city.

Iraqi Gen. Walid Khalid, who oversees police in Baqubah and the larger Diyala province, picked up a tip that foreign fighters were hiding in some houses in the village. The Americans organized a raid with about 80 soldiers and four Bradley fighting vehicles. Three Iraqi police officers were ordered to participate.

When soldiers arrived at the first house, they broke down the front door, handcuffed bleary-eyed residents and ordered them at gunpoint into the front yard for questioning.

"OK, just tell them what we're doing here," a U.S. soldier told one of the Iraqi policemen, who was also serving as interpreter.

The policeman -- wearing a black ski mask to hide his identify -- paused for a moment, and then asked the soldier, "What are you doing here?"

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