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To U.S., progress looks a lot like Mosul

The city, which fell to insurgents briefly in 2004, is held up as an example of how Iraqi forces can take charge.

January 22, 2007|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

MOSUL, IRAQ — The date 11/11 is so ingrained in the memory of residents of this ancient citadel that it requires no further explanation than 9/11 would in the United States.

On Nov. 11, 2004, the city that had been heralded as an American success story fell to Sunni Arab insurgents and the local police melted away.

It took U.S.-led troops months of hard fighting to reclaim Mosul, a diverse city of about 2 million people wedged between the Kurdish north and Arab south, about 60 miles from the Syrian border.

More than two years later, U.S. officials are again touting the city as an example of progress in an intensified effort to train Iraqi forces to take over security so American troops can begin heading home.

Thousands of new police officers and soldiers have been recruited here and across northern Iraq. Their U.S. handlers say they are better trained, better equipped and more motivated than their predecessors, allowing American forces to reduce their presence in the six northern provinces by more than a third over the last year, to about 19,500.

The 2nd Iraqi Army Division assumed security control over Mosul on Dec. 22 and is expected to fall under the command of Iraqi ground forces today, completing a hand-over that is a cornerstone of the U.S. exit strategy in Iraq.

Still a violent place

Yet the city where former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's feared sons, Uday and Qusai, died in a gunfight with U.S. forces in 2003 is far from subdued. Bombings and mortar barrages rattle residents almost daily, and neighborhoods remain hotbeds of the Sunni Arab insurgency. Assassins have killed police officers, journalists, university professors, even a popular singer.

Senna Ahmed, a 27-year-old primary school teacher, said she had not taken her three children for a walk in more than a year. She lives in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of drab concrete homes that is a focus of violence.

Every day, she said, the streets are clogged with checkpoints -- some run by the police, others by Americans, and some by insurgents. Fighters pull up at high speed, set up weapons and start firing at the security forces, sending residents scurrying indoors to escape the inevitable riposte.

"We are caught between the hammer of the insurgents and the anvil of the troops," she said.

U.S. military officials think insurgents inspired by Al Qaeda and funded by exiled members of Hussein's Baath Party are trying to regain a foothold in the city. Last month, the U.S. military announced the capture of a senior Al Qaeda in Iraq leader who they said had returned to Mosul to reorganize the insurgency after spending months directing operations in west Baghdad.

With the U.S. planning to deploy about 17,000 additional troops in Baghdad, officials predict that insurgents will soon redirect many of their activities to cities such as Mosul and nearby Tall Afar. But the province's governor and police and army chiefs say that Mosul will not fall again.

"We sacrificed our blood for this country," said Duraid Kashmoula, who succeeded his slain brother as governor of Nineveh province and has survived more assassination attempts than he can count. "We are not going to let it go now."

Yet he and others blanch at the possibility of American troops leaving the region, which receives little support from Baghdad.

"It is not a good idea for them to leave right now," said Mosul's police chief, Gen. Mohammed Wathiq.

Nobody wants a repeat of 11/11, they said.

No match for insurgency

In the year after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the United States spent millions in Mosul refurbishing schools and factories, setting up a police force and fire department, and forming one of the first city councils to draw in members of all the major ethnic and religious groups. At the time, the councils were heralded as a model of representative government.

But when U.S. forces reduced their presence, the police force proved no match for the insurgency, leaving Kashmoula to defend the governor's palace with a handful of bodyguards.

U.S. and Iraqi officials think they have again turned the city around. This time, they say, they have trained and equipped two divisions of soldiers, about 8,000 troops each, and more than 18,000 police officers for the province, of which Mosul is the capital.

Police officers and soldiers who before rarely left their bases are guarding checkpoints, cruising bustling shopping streets, collecting intelligence, conducting raids and breaking up insurgent cells, with U.S. forces taking an increasingly secondary role, American officials said.

When insurgents attack, the local security forces swarm to the fight, said Army Col. Steve Townsend, commander of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, based in Ft. Lewis, Wash.

"Sometimes they will say to us, 'Why don't you stay on the [base] today? We'll take care of you,' " said Lt. Col. Fred Johnson, Townsend's deputy. "That's pretty powerful."

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