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AL CHEB ALLIB, Iraq — Soldiers with the 6th Brigade, 4th Iraqi Army Division raided three villages about 10 miles north of Beiji on Wednesday, an operation in which U.S. forces played only a supporting role.

With U.S. troops in Iraq preparing to step back and hand over lead combat roles to Iraqi forces over the next year, the operation was described as a significant move toward enabling Iraqi forces in the north-central part of the country to operate independently.

The target of the raid was a collection of insurgent arms caches supposedly hidden in the three villages, which are located just up the highway from the largest oil refinery in northern Iraq. About 300 Iraqi army and police participated in the mission, along with about 200 U.S. soldiers.

U.S. helicopters airlifted some Iraqi troops into one part of the objective area, while the rest went in by ground convoy, with U.S. vehicles trailing behind. While the mission turned up virtually nothing in terms of enemy arms or fighters, U.S. advisers said it was a good start for the Iraqi brigade.

“This was the first brigade-size operation ever with 6th Brigade in the lead,” said Maj. Oscar Pintado, 37, of Bayamon, Puerto Rico, team chief for the 0412 Military Transition Team. “I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty, but it went pretty good.”

First Lt. Jacinto Serna, intelligence officer for the 0412 MiTT, said the mission was the first time that 6th Brigade had carried out a mission in which they generated their own intelligence, conducted their own planning, and then led the operation.

“It’s their first intelligence-driven mission,” said Serna, 30, of El Paso, Texas.

But the mission was not without its challenges, as U.S. military officers like to say.

First, the ground convoy was nearly 45 minutes late getting to its objective area because “Headhunter,” the U.S. element leading the convoy, decided that it would be prudent to check every culvert along the route for possible bombs. The decision came even after U.S. engineers had already cleared the route several hours before. That decision resulted in a huge bottleneck of traffic, with U.S. and Iraqi vehicles stretching for miles down the highway.

The second glitch came when the Iraqi 5th Battalion, 6th Brigade ended up at the wrong village. They searched Al Cheb Allib for two hours before a scout helicopter pilot informed U.S. advisers that their actual objective lie about one kilometer to the south.

By this time, the Iraqi soldiers had confiscated every weapon they had found, even though Iraqi law allows each household to possess one AK-47 rifle and one 30-round magazine of ammunition. After a short discussion with U.S. advisers, Col. Abdul Karim, commander of the 5th Battalion, agreed to give most of the weapons back to their owners.

But in an effort to spread goodwill in the village, Karim had earlier passed out toys to many of the children.

“We try to keep good behavior in the Iraqi army,” he said. “So, when we give the children toys, they will never forget it. But if we do bad things to their fathers, they will never forget that either.”

The third glitch came after the 5th Battalion finally got to its actual objective, a gas station and a collection of buildings spread out over an area of several hundred meters.

As the Iraqi soldiers were searching the buildings, Lt. Col. Peter Wilhelm, commander of 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, stopped by with several of his officers to chat with Karim about the progress of the mission. As they were talking, Karim’s executive officer, an Iraqi major, accidentally let loose with a short burst from his AK-47. The rounds hit the ground only inches from Wilhelm’s left foot.

Wilhelm stared at the Iraqi officer briefly, then snapped, “Put your weapon on safe.” The Iraqi major complied and smiled, clearly embarrassed.

The discussion continued for another few minutes, then Wilhelm said he was leaving. Karim wished him well and apologized for the accidental discharge of his major’s weapon.

“If he had shot me, I’d have shot him back,” Wilhelm said. It was impossible to tell whether he was serious or joking. He turned to leave. About 15 minutes later, the mission ended, and the U.S. and Iraqi troops headed back to their respective bases.

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