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U.S. troops as police investigators in Iraq

Driving out insurgents, assessing accusations, soldiers often have to interview suspects and bag and tag evidence.

January 12, 2008|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

DIYALA RIVER VALLEY, IRAQ — A stocky man in a dusty dishdasha and red-checked scarf squatted under a tree as U.S. soldiers dug up his yard looking for weapons or other incriminating evidence.

Staff Sgt. Mario Cavazos knelt in front of him in the finger-numbing cold.

"The reason we are here is because we have heard from townspeople that you have been kidnapping people. Is that true?" he asked through an interpreter.

"No, I swear," the suspect said, shaking his head vigorously. "If you find anything here you can take me away or shoot me in the head."

U.S. and Iraqi forces rolling into the northern Diyala River valley this week have encountered bombs in the roads and a booby-trapped house that resulted in the deaths of six American troops and their Iraqi interpreter. But for the soldiers of 3rd Platoon, Company H, of the Army's 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, the offensive in a notorious insurgent redoubt has turned into a veritable CSI-Iraq.

In this case, a frightened family grieving over the death of a kidnapped brother named a former neighbor as the perpetrator, sending the soldiers on a murky trail replete with pent-up bitterness, fears and suspicions in a hamlet long under the sway of Sunni Arab insurgents.

Since U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq nearly five years ago, the job of soldiering has been transformed. Troops trained to kick down doors and shoot the enemy spend just as much time bagging and tagging evidence, photographing raid scenes and grilling suspects.

At the start of the war, an accusation such as the one made Thursday might have been sufficient for the suspect to be sent indefinitely to a U.S.-operated detention facility. But these days, the U.S. military is concerned with ensuring there is enough evidence to obtain a conviction in an Iraqi court, where many suspects end up. That means American soldiers often assume the job of police investigators, even in the midst of an assault.

Recognizing that insurgents are constantly watching and adapting to U.S. tactics, soldiers are also trained to do their own investigative work so they can quickly act on leads without waiting for an expert to reach the scene.

The man accused Thursday of collaborating with Sunni insurgents said he was one of seven brothers who own orange groves in the isolated region north of Muqdadiya, known as the breadbasket of Iraq.

A dump truck parked in front of his compound and signs of construction caught the eye of the soldiers. Al Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group that U.S. intelligence says is foreign-led, is reputed to pay its collaborators well. But despite the signs of money being spent, the suspect said he wasn't earning anything currently because it was winter.

The search of his property turned up scant evidence: an empty pistol holder in a car and two large daggers buried behind the house.

His mother and sisters-in-law said he was a good man who provided for them all. As a result, the platoon leader, 1st Lt. Douglas Locke, decided he should ask the man's accusers to identify him from a photograph and make signed statements.

"I still want to make sure this isn't some kind of blood feud," Locke said. "You know how 'he stole my car' turns into 'he's a terrorist.' "

For soldiers trying to navigate a foreign language and culture in a region rarely visited by U.S. forces, telling friend from foe is a constant challenge. To build the trust of villagers who can identify the insurgents in their midst, the soldiers need to exercise maximum restraint. Yet one mistake can cost a soldier's life.

"The problem is you can never tell -- until you are getting shot," said Spc. Ignacio Hernandez.

The suspect was told to go with the soldiers for further questioning at the temporary base they had set up in a spacious villa. Women in long black robes, huddled with their children in a corner of the yard, wept and pleaded as he was taken away, but he went willingly without handcuffs.

At the base, a military intelligence officer conducted more detailed questioning. Then, the soldiers left in search of his accusers.

As they walked in formation along a canal with paddling ducks, villagers came out of homes and shops to stare. A few gave thumbs-up signs and said, "Good, Good." But one young boy in the distance picked up a stone and threw it toward them.

The last time many of them had seen a U.S. soldier was more than a year ago, they said. In that time, masked gunmen had taken over, enforcing strict Islamic law and threatening to behead villagers who did not cooperate.

"We were afraid to go out. We couldn't work because of Al Qaeda," said a man at the accusers' house.

He pointed to a small black-and-white photograph hanging on the wall. "They kidnapped and killed my brother," he said, sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor of a sparsely furnished reception room.

When Locke showed him a digital picture of the suspect, the man nodded, identified him by name and said that he had until recently worked for the insurgents.

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