More Iraqi troops participating in raids
BAGHDAD, Iraq — In a move that U.S. commanders hope will push more day-to-day peacekeeping responsibilities over to Iraqis themselves, the Army is organizing raids to hunt down terrorists using overwhelming numbers of local paramilitary troops.
On Monday, about 35 members of the Florida National Guard provided security and intelligence for an operation into Baghdad conducted by about 80 members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.
American troops hope such operations will be steps toward a nominally normal Iraq. The occupying coalition has spent $3.3 billion in tax dollars to establish the defense corps as well as an army, border patrol and other institutions.
“This is a complete role reversal,” said Capt. Rodney Sanchez, commander of Company A, 3rd Battalion, 124th Infantry of the Florida National Guard. Typically, the number of Iraqis would mirror the number of Americans on such a mission. Ramping up the participation of Iraqis essentially doubled the captain’s forces.
“We’re not there to run the mission,” Sanchez said inside his compound, a former officers club used by the Republican Guard. “We’re there to just observe.”
The area of Baghdad in which the guardsmen operate is relatively tiny, and relatively safe. Sanchez, a Tallahassee policeman in civilian life, stresses walking the streets rather than rolling around sheathed in the beige desert armor of a Humvee.
“Back home we don’t normally fight terrorists,” Sanchez said. “But these guys are out here, and we’re like beat cops.”
This hometown approach may be particularly appropriate for the fledgling Iraqi force. It’s made up of otherwise normal Iraqis who may live alongside the homes and families they search.
“Ninety percent of what we do is on foot,” said 1st Sgt. Todd Simmons. “That has allowed us to know the neighborhood, know the people in the neighborhood.”
That’s also meant some success. On Christmas Day, locals tipped off soldiers to multiple explosives just outside the compound.
On this Monday evening mission, troops searched for someone believed to support the bloody resistance that has killed scores of soldiers and civilians through the use of improvised explosives, car bombs and grenades. About 30 rigged explosives have been found in Sanchez’s sector. One of his men, Spc. Robert Allen Wise, died Nov. 12 after someone blew up a mortar shell as his Humvee passed.
These incidents always weigh on the minds of soldiers during raids, no matter how routine. Simmons said there are just too many places on Baghdad’s trash-strewn streets to hide a bomb.
“We don’t expect [resistance], but we always plan for it,” Sanchez said. “We’re looking for a specific person and we don’t know which house he’s in.”
The captain’s smaller number of men headed outside. The Iraqis broke into two groups, each platoon taunting the other with catcalls. They cheered. They sang.
“Saddam no good,” offered one of these men, Pvt. Ali Abbas. “He killed my brother.” Abbas thanked the United States and President Bush for ousting the dictator.
“My family thanks you. I thank you.”
Not everyone agrees with Abbas, and this makes his job difficult and dangerous.
Unlike the guardsmen, the Iraqis have no fortress in which to sleep come evening. They simply return to their families. Some cover their faces in scarves or ski masks so that terrorists won’t know who they are.
Soon the men marched and the black sky shuddered with the sound of helicopter rotors. The Americans kept to the perimeter; the Iraqis massed along the street. Drivers stared. It was not a stealth operation.
Soon it began and the Iraqis used bolt cutters to open a gate. Inside, the Iraqis and U.S. troops found apartment dwellers armed like the Republican Guard. Everyone had an AK-47. This, it turned out, is actually normal.
Sanchez asked one harried man, apparently a building manager, about one of the guns. It’s for security, the man replied. Each household had only the number of weapons permitted. Sanchez asked the Iraqis to ease up on kicking in doors.
The residents kept their rifles. The helmets left.
The company marched again through streets shiny-slick with puddles and lined with squarish brick and concrete houses. They knocked on one door and a scarved woman answered. A television flickered inside and the troops stepped around a living room strewn with toys.
They then walked out, waved, smiled and kept going.
They banged and clanged against two huge iron gates, turquoise and heavy, but the threshold remained fast. An older man in a greatcoat and tie eventually turned up. He offered to fetch his machine gun and pistol.
“Sometimes they’re a little overly helpful,” said Sgt. 1st Class James Gilleon. “They’ll put out a weapon, and you’re like, ‘Whoa-hoa! I’ll find it.’ ”
The man, the owner of the house, told Gilleon he is a former diplomat. His daughter lives in San Francisco.
“That’s great,” Gilleon replied.
The retired diplomat did his best to be diplomatic.
“You do very well,” he said of the search. “It’s for my sake.”
The man joked that his Aladdin fairy tale gates could keep out anything, save a tank. He knew full well the soldiers, of course, could arrange that.
If doors didn’t open, the soldiers and Iraqi paramilitary troops knocked them in — or did their best.
“We’ve had a lot of success with sledgehammers,” said Sanchez, the captain. They’ll often nudge the gate with a Humvee first.
If someone seems legitimately out for the evening, the soldiers still bust in, but take before-and-after pictures and leave a note asking for the bill.
“You try to do as little damage as possible,” said Sgt. Jerry Walden. “But you gotta do what you gotta do.”
At its end, the joint raid netted only the few automatic rifles — the ones troops returned to their owners — and an intelligence tip the coalition already had.
But before it was finished, once the street opened wider and brighter, people gawked at the soldiers and paramilitary Iraqis. They waved from shops selling eggs, soft drinks and carpets. A boy soon zipped along the march on his bicycle.
Despite the masks, despite the rifles, no one seemed afraid.