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Trust is their weapon of choice

U.S. forces hope that by sticking around a Baghdad neighborhood they can get residents to open up. They've got a battle on their hands.

February 19, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The chunky man in the beige velour tracksuit emphasized that he wanted to help the U.S. troops, who politely sipped the Pepsis he had produced after they arrived unannounced Saturday night at his modest home in the northeast neighborhood of Shaab.

Without the Americans, the man said, kidnappers and killers who have terrorized Sunni Muslims in the Shiite-dominated area would resurface. Drawing his index finger across his neck in a slicing motion, he indicated what happened to Sunnis when U.S. forces were not around.

But when U.S. Army Spc. Rany Grizz pressed the man for details, he encountered one of the most stubborn enemies facing American and Iraqi forces attempting to carry out the latest security crackdown in violence-racked Baghdad: Iraqis' paralyzing fear and distrust of virtually everyone, including the Iraqi army, their next-door neighbors and their own relatives.

"The way we can make this neighborhood safer is if we go and get them tonight," Grizz, 22, of Miami said to the man, a sense of urgency in his voice as he tried to coax more information. But the source had nothing more to say, at least for the moment.

"Everybody has a weapon," he said, explaining his fear of saying too much. "I don't even trust my brother-in-law."

As for the idea of Iraqi troops loyal to the Shiite-dominated national government taking over for U.S. forces, the man held up his hands as if fending off a bad smell.

"We're afraid if they go," he said of the Americans, "all the trouble will come back."

It was a message heard several times over Saturday as the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team from the Army's 2nd Infantry Division, based in Ft. Lewis, Wash., went house to house along a block of small concrete homes in Shaab.

The poor and working-class neighborhood is of high interest to troops enforcing the security plan because it is adjacent to Sadr City, a hotbed of the Shiite Muslim militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada Sadr, and Adhamiya, a Sunni stronghold.

Its location makes it a likely spot for militant activity from both sides, and for the last week U.S. soldiers in Strykers, hulking 22-ton armored vehicles, have combed it day and night.

By day, they conduct clearing operations, searching homes and detaining people based in part on tips from neighborhood residents. By night, they follow up by gathering a new round of "atmospherics," military-speak for chatting with locals to get the lay of the land and develop sources of information.

"We're definitely devoting a lot more combat power to this area as part of this new mission," said Capt. Bill Parsons, 28, of Miami, a company commander.

U.S. officials are banking on the latest security crackdown in Baghdad, which started Tuesday, to succeed where others have not because of its emphasis on face-to-face contact, joint U.S.-Iraqi patrols and the establishment of combat outposts in neighborhoods of the capital.

The idea is to win public trust for American and Iraqi forces by staying around. Once trust is established, military officials say, the cooperation they need from the public to flush out militants will follow.

Judging from Saturday's exercise, it won't be easy.

"There definitely is a portion of the population not willing to give us their trust," Parsons said. "But ultimately this is how the Baghdad security plan is going to succeed -- if people see it in action face to face. Otherwise, all they are seeing is our vehicles, and that's pretty intimidating."

The people who were visited Saturday, and the conditions in which they live, tell a familiar story in Iraq: of families stripped of their once-cozy if modest lives, craving security and trying to keep up appearances in a bleak environment.

Satin and velvet drapes, once richly colored but faded by age and dust, cover front windows. Grime-coated chandeliers hang from ceilings so low that some soldiers' helmets brush against the dangling baubles. Mismatched carpets cover old linoleum floors. Visitors are served soda, tea in delicate little cups, and in one home, sugar cookies carefully displayed on silver trays.

'Afraid of everything'

In one house, two AK-47s were propped on a shelf next to the front door for protection, a common sight and one that shows the fear of attack and the lack of faith in Iraqi police to come to the rescue.

"If we call the police, they come to kill us, so who are we supposed to call?" asked the man in the velour tracksuit, who like others questioned by the troops refused to be identified out of fear of retribution.

"I'd rather be arrested by the Americans than by Iraqis," he said, as he and his wife sat on a tattered sofa in a tiny room decorated with vases of plastic flowers.

Down the street, a Shiite man sat with his squirming children, a Sony computer in the corner hinting at a past life. He wrapped his arms around a little girl in a pink bathrobe. She was supposed to start school this year but is not being allowed out of the house because he is afraid she might never make it back.

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