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US military shifts tactics with Iraqis
Updated: 2004-04-05 16:01

Deep in the Iraqi countryside, a small patrol rolls into a poor village of mostly illiterate farmers.

U.S. soldiers emerge from two armored vehicles and a crowd gathers. The older men reel off a litany of woes and Laith Hamid, son of the village chief, tells an officer: "The American unit before you was not good to Arabs. In this rural society, it is an insult to search our homes. If you deal with us with force, it will be to nobody's benefit."

The patrol leader, Capt. Sean Sims, happens to agree.

"The last unit was detaining a lot of people," he said prior to the patrol's stop in Aetha, a village near the town of Mugdadiyah, 70 miles northeast of Baghdad.

Instead of winning people over, the U.S. forces were angering them by "busting up houses and detaining adults in front of kids."

U.S. forces conduct some 1,400 patrols and raids across Iraq every day. Whereas in the past missions like Sims' favored strong-arm tactics, these days the emphasis is on what is being called "the relationship phase" with Iraqi civilians.

The thinking goes like this: By expanding its contact with Iraqis, the military can crack the invariable wall of silence and cure the Americans' Achilles heel lack of solid intelligence about insurgents.

Small units are key players in the new approach, commanding officers say. It's their patrols and raids, rather than big sweeps and offensives, that are the staple of the military effort in Iraq.

"It's much easier to kick down doors and arrest people, but you pay a price. What we're doing is infinitely more complicated than combat operations. Soldiers have to exercise far greater judgment and they assume risks," says Sims' battalion commander, Lt. Col. Peter A. Newell.

Not all like it. Angry at the recent killings and mutilations of four American civilian contractors in the town of Fallujah, some soldiers outside Newell's command grumbled about being straightjacketed into "a class-act army" rather than fighting as a tough, hard-charging force.

And commanders differ as to the emphasis they place on the velvet glove.

Newell says his battalion, from the 2nd Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, came prepared for the softer touch, with nine months of peacekeeping experience in Kosovo. They arrived in Iraq less than a month ago, charged with stabilizing the largely rural area of 260,000 people around Muqdadiyah.

"Initially we come into town and everyone says, 'We have no problems. The bad guys come from over there.' They just don't open up. It may be from feelings toward us but a lot of people are just very scared," said Sims, of El Paso, Texas, who commands the battalion's Alpha Company.

As the unit settles into the area for a year's stay, orders are to mingle with locals who might come into contact with insurgents planning attacks, such as village leaders, market vendors, and shop owners. The hope is that eventually, as trust builds, more people will begin to point fingers.

"It's all based on human relations. We'll live and die by it," Newell, of St. Johnsbury, Vt., said. "We want the population to cast the insurgents out."

Battalion officers say the emphasis is on nailing down multiple sources before launching a raid, rather than relying on a single informant as was often the case in the past.

"We are in a race against the guys who are spreading hatred, violence and anti-coalition material and they speak the people's language and have the social links. We don't," Newell says. "Whose message gets out farther faster?"

To win the race with such a handicap, the battalion mounts daily, around-the-clock patrols. In a recent 24-hour period, Alpha Company threw a nighttime roadblock hoping to snare weapons smugglers from nearby Iran. The next morning it switched into the new mode by dropping in on Aetha and then swinging to Al Alawashik, a town of 5,000 where residents asked help paving a road, enlarging the school and covering fetid sewers.

After trying to pinpoint mortars that fired on Camp Normandy, the battalion base, the patrol joined Newell and other officers at a feast with more than 60 sheiks, police officers, Iraqi Civil Defense Corps members and local officials, all vital but often not effective in turning the population around.

Newell said he knows some of those sharing heaping trays of mutton with him were lining their own pockets, linking up with insurgents and criminals and pursuing personal power rather than democracy.

"There are a number who hate us and want to see us fail. We will continue to hunt them down," he told the group. "But I am a man of great patience and I will not shoot back to endanger the lives of innocent civilians we have come to protect."

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