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Troops Score Small Victories

A battalion hits the streets and befriends Iraqis who help nab suspects

March 11, 2007|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

Combat Outpost War Eagle, Iraq — The high-value target was shacked up with a prostitute.

That, at least, was the story provided by an Iraqi man who approached this combat outpost dug into the muddy east bank of the Tigris River in Baghdad. The target was Usama Kokez, a Sunni accused of leading a kidnapping ring that had executed several Shiite civilians.

The tip sent 1st Lt. Larry Pitts and his troops on a wild dash through the dark streets of Adhamiya in northwest Baghdad, their night-vision goggles on and their headlights off. For a battalion of 82nd Airborne paratroopers that is part of the "surge" of 21,500 troops being dispatched to stabilize Baghdad and Al Anbar province to the west, the Kokez tip was one small return on an investment.

The unit had been hiking down garbage-strewn streets for three weeks, imploring Iraqis to provide information on insurgents and militias in Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods. Such boots-on-the-ground probing is a staple of counterinsurgency warfare, but it was scrapped several months after U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003. Now it has been revived in the face of a rampant insurgency and a devastating sectarian war.

"The difference this time is, we're not leaving," said Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.

Most of the additional troops aren't on massive, fortified bases. They live beside Iraqi soldiers on small, urban combat outposts such as War Eagle, or with Iraqi police in even smaller joint security stations, in a bid to win over the population by providing round-the-clock security.

Fifteen joint security stations have been set up, with a goal of establishing 28 to 30, the military says. Officials, citing security concerns, refuse to reveal the number and location of combat outposts.

Nearly four years into the war, U.S. forces are still introducing themselves to Iraqis. Residents of some areas assigned to Pitts' unit have never seen American soldiers in their neighborhoods.

None of that mattered to Pitts, a calm, resolute veteran of three Iraq tours. Known as Big Larry, he prefers the streets to the bases. He and his soldiers have been passing out "tip cards" to Iraqis. The cards ask for information on insurgents and militias and provide a phone number for the combat outpost.

Pitts, 32, beefy and barrel-chested, is a genial ambassador. With his round, open face and earnest manner, he is able to approach people in their doorways without terrifying them. Through a masked interpreter nicknamed Phillip, he chatted amiably on a recent mission, cajoling and politicking.

Residents complained about gunmen terrorizing the Fish Market, a local bazaar shaped like a fish. Just after Pitts and his troops returned to their outpost in the afternoon, a local man showed up and said Kokez was at home with a prostitute. He provided an address near the market.

A high-tech effort

For the next two hours, the full technological weight of the U.S. military was brought to bear against Usama Kokez. The plan called for a Shadow spy drone, an F-16 jet and an Apache attack helicopter to circle overhead. They would provide real-time video feeds projected on a wall and on laptops in an operations center inside a former Iraqi police gymnasium.

Computer screens inside Humvees displayed maps of the target area. Other imagery was overlaid with schematics showing positions for the assault team and cordons of troops.

Databases spat out other Iraqi complaints and intelligence details about Kokez, whom the military had been seeking for weeks. No raid is launched without multiple sources implicating a suspect, said the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Wilson Shoffner.

Kokez was a prized quarry. According to battalion officers, he had joined Al Qaeda against his father's wishes. Either he or his brother Amar, also an alleged Al Qaeda member, killed the father in order to join, the officers said.

A phalanx of Humvees carrying 58 soldiers from Bravo battery, known as the Bulls, sped through the streets, deserted because of the city's overnight curfew. In the back of one Humvee sat the Iraqi informant, his face masked. Next to him was a masked interpreter nicknamed Bob.

The Kokez compound consisted of three connected homes behind gated walls, difficult to distinguish on satellite imagery.

The assault team, in full combat armor with automatic rifles and shotguns, burst from their vehicles -- and stormed the wrong house.

They bashed the outer metal gate with a crowbar-like device known as a hooligan tool, but it held fast. It took five shotgun blasts to blow off the locks and hinges.

During the delay, pilots overhead -- and officers watching video feeds at the outpost -- saw a man race across a rooftop next door, leap a fence and bolt down an alley.

Inside his Humvee, the informant gestured wildly toward a second house. "He says that's the right house!" the interpreter screamed.

One small victory

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