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Army officers' partnership put to the test

An Iraqi captain and a U.S. platoon leader team up against a Baghdad militia -- too effectively, for some.

July 06, 2007|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — They were strangers in a strange land: the American soldier in Iraq and the Sunni army captain in a Shiite neighborhood.

The Iraqi intelligence officer had recently arrived in east Baghdad with his unit from outside Fallouja. The American platoon leader had come to Iraq months before, but as the U.S. was building up its troops, he found himself with a new mission to protect the people of the Zafaraniya neighborhood.

Both men were just starting to understand Zafaraniya. What they did not know was whether they could trust each other.

But Iraqi army Capt. Ali Hossein offered U.S. Army Lt. Clay Hanna a chance to meet with the most important asset an intelligence officer has: a source.

The gamble worked. Hanna and his platoon used the information Hossein's source provided, along with their own intelligence, to capture eight local members of the Shiite Al Mahdi militia, which has become U.S. forces' prime enemy in east Baghdad.

When the United States launched its new counter-insurgency strategy in Baghdad in February, this was the way it was supposed to work: Iraqis and Americans working together to develop the kind of street-level intelligence needed to go after the militias and insurgents in Iraqi neighborhoods.

Hanna's partnership with Hossein shows the strategy's potential in the hands of bright, creative and motivated troops. But his experience also signals how difficult it will be for the United States to build on those small victories.

Baghdad, with its mix of religious sects, ethnicities and political parties and with weak traditional leaders, may be the most complex counter-insurgency mission the U.S. has faced. And radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Al Mahdi militia is a far more influential enemy than the insurgents who have been the focus of U.S. efforts. Not only does it have committed fighters and influence with the people, it has another powerful weapon: political influence.

And, at the height of Hanna and Hossein's success in chasing down the Al Mahdi militia in Zafaraniya, Sadr loyalists at the top of the Iraqi government would make their move.

Hanna attended Officer Candidate School after graduating from Old Dominion University, near his home in Virginia Beach, Va. A soccer star before injuring a knee in college, Hanna, 29, has the look of an athlete light on his feet and the confidence that comes with knowing he is one of the few Americans in Zafaraniya who can best the Iraqi soldiers on the pitch.

One cornerstone of Hanna's success is his ability to assess with just a look whether an Iraqi is the type who might help him out with a tidbit. Then he patiently works to make that Iraqi his friend.

"This is a platoon leader's war," said Lt. Andrew Aiken, the intelligence officer at Hanna's headquarters -- the 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery -- who introduced Hanna and Hossein. "To be successful you have to be clever, you have to take the initiative, and above all you have to be patient. Lt. Hanna has done just that."

The breakthrough in the relationship between Hanna and Hossein came on the soccer field. When, after a day of talking, a soccer game was proposed, Hanna made sure he and Hossein were on the same team.

"We won decisively," Hanna said. "And he and I managed to link up for a majority of the goals."

In the days after the game, Hanna began offering Hossein the support of his platoon for any raids the Iraqis were planning.

"I would continue to bring this up every time he mentioned bad guys he was tracking," Hanna said. "One day he told me that he was bringing in a source that knew exact locations of several important [militia] fighters."

The eight Al Mahdi militiamen netted in the raid included several cell leaders and men who had planted roadside bombs. After a celebratory feast, Hanna and Hossein began sharing information regularly.

Hossein found that his bosses at the brigade and division above him, many of them Shiite, were hesitant to go after some of the targets he had evidence against. But the Americans did not share that reluctance and wanted to dismantle the Al Mahdi militia from the ground up.

"He feels, to go about his job, he can't go through his higher headquarters," Hanna said. "If he wants to do something that his brigade is unwilling to do, he will say it was our idea and vice versa."

The successes have buoyed many of Hanna's soldiers, and they have great loyalty to their platoon leader. The platoon members brag that they have captured the most detainees.

"We've done a lot of creative stuff, we have tried a lot of things," said Spc. Cody Pensyl, 25. "A lot of people, they just want to get done with their time and go home. We figure as long as we are here, we will work hard."

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