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Staff Sgt. Charles Rhoten surveys the scene in Asham Ali, Iraq. Rhoten leads regular patrols of the area.

Staff Sgt. Charles Rhoten surveys the scene in Asham Ali, Iraq. Rhoten leads regular patrols of the area. (Anita Powell / S&S)

Staff Sgt. Charles Rhoten surveys the scene in Asham Ali, Iraq. Rhoten leads regular patrols of the area.

Staff Sgt. Charles Rhoten surveys the scene in Asham Ali, Iraq. Rhoten leads regular patrols of the area. (Anita Powell / S&S)

Asham Ali police official Capt. Sallim says there are few crime problems in the heavily Shiite town in southern Iraq.

Asham Ali police official Capt. Sallim says there are few crime problems in the heavily Shiite town in southern Iraq. (Anita Powell / S&S)

ASHAM ALI, Iraq — Staff Sgt. Charles Rhoten’s patrol rolled slowly through this small, hardscrabble town Wednesday like a macabre parade, drawing pointed, hateful looks from the throng of locals.

Fortunately for the men of Rhoten’s unit, Battery A, 1st Battalion, 125th Regiment Field Artillery, a Kansas-based unit attached to the Minnesota Army National Guard, their three months in this Shiite-heavy area of southern Iraq has yielded little worse than killer looks.

“Hard-line Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is Muhammad reborn around here,” said Rhoten, 37, a native of Wichita, Kan. “And he makes no bones about not wanting us here.”

American Army officials believe much of the area is under the thrall of Jeish al-Mahdi, or the Mahdi militia, al-Sadr’s military arm.

The locals’ hard-line Shiite sympathies are not hard to spot: Posters from 555, al-Sadr’s political slate during the December election, still plaster Asham Ali, a town of 40,000 people near Diwaniyah that military officials say harbors the illegal militia.

“There is reason to believe the Mahdi army has infiltrated local government,” said battalion spokesman Capt. Paul Rickert.

However, for Rhoten, who leads regular patrols of the area, belief isn’t enough.

“I know they’re there, I know they’ve done things,” he said. “I just can’t prove it.

“The people in charge here are not stupid. They know we’re not going to stay here. They’re just biding their time. They’re glad Saddam’s gone. Now they want to run their own show.”

He predicted that al-Sadr’s quest for power will face little resistance from local law enforcement.

“Just from what we’ve observed at the low end, they don’t have the power,” he said. “They’re not the ones calling the shots.”

It’s hardly surprising, then, that local police officers, even when pressed, stridently refused to discuss the militia. To a man, local police officers blamed any problems in the area on Sunnis and outsiders.

“Nobody makes trouble,” said police Lt. Abbas Ali, 27 in Arabic, as he stood at a checkpoint near the town. “They are all Shiite people here. The people from Sunni (areas), they come from Ramadi and make trouble.”

When asked if he thought the anti-Sunni sentiment would dissolve over time, he answered with an emphatic no.

“They never change,” he said. “They think wrong.”

He added, “I don’t trust anyone. There is a lot of trouble in Iraq right now. Maybe if they give my cousin $1,000, he’ll come and kill me.”

In the Asham Ali police station, police Capt. Sallim, 40, disputed that the area is troubled.

“Just little problems, no big problems,” he said, after professing to know little about the slayings of a local man and his wife who were stopped on their way to a wedding and shot in broad daylight in front of their daughters. According to U.S. military officials, the couple’s 3-year-old daughter was shot in the foot. Iraqi police have detained four men in the crime.

“The situation in this area is very safe and quiet,” Sallim said. “This place, all the people know each other, making it hard for any stranger to pass through this village.”

Like his colleagues, Sallim said any crime in the area was being perpetrated by outsiders.

After refusing three times to answer why he thought the townspeople reacted angrily to American presence, Sallim protested.

“You are welcome here,” he said. “The hospitality is very good. They are not angry.”

As Sallim was talking, however, an American soldier standing guard outside the police station fell victim to a most unusual crime: a drive-by fruiting.

The offending tomato, hurled from a passing car, hit Spc. Randon Smith’s left boot, bounced up and smacked him in the shin.

“If they were going to do it,” said the 27-year-old with a smile, “they could’ve thrown it a little harder.”

On the ride back to Camp Scania, Rhoten chuckled at Sallim’s assessment that the Americans were welcome in the town.

“That’s why they yell at us to go back to Camp Scania,” he said.

“Yup, everybody loves us,” he said, surveying the scene with a sigh. “There is no militia here.”

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