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U.S. Forces Eager to Relinquish Baghdad Beat

Times Staff Writer

Army Lt. Cody Williams and half his platoon in their two Abrams tanks, with “American Hellraisers” emblazoned on the barrels, rumbled up to a nondescript, three-story apartment building early Friday.

Williams had a hot tip: Someone parked luxury cars belonging to President Saddam Hussein’s son Uday inside 49 Al Masbah Street, then built false walls of cinder block and plaster to hide them.

It seemed as likely as anything else in this city where anything is possible, so Williams and his troops started chopping into the walls. By day’s end, they had found a 2003 fire-engine red Mercedes-Benz 500 SEL and a new burgundy BMW, each with a built-in television, VCR, satellite phone, plush leather interior and a photograph of the Iraqi leader taped inside.

Williams didn’t know who owned the cars, and it seemed impossible to know at the time. He ordered them towed from the sleepy middle-class neighborhood just before sunset.

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Soon after, the building’s owner, clad in a long white robe and sporting a thick black mustache, returned in a new white Mercedes. He asked a few questions, pulled out a sleek black Kalashnikov and opened fire at the Iraqi across the street he suspected of contacting the troops.

It was just another day on the beat for U.S. troops in lawless Baghdad.

Combat teams like Williams’ are the closest thing to the law on the Iraqi capital’s streets. It was about a month ago that Williams’ Alpha Company and other U.S. forces seized Saddam International Airport. Now, they’re cops on the beat, patrolling in tanks with little knowledge of the streets and the language.

The primary mission for Williams and similar units is to hunt for the 55 most-wanted members of Iraq’s former regime. U.S. forces said they had some successes.

Officials said they seized three more on the list: Abdel Tawab Mullah Huweish, director of the Military Industrialization Organization; Taha Muhyi Maruf, a vice president and member of the Revolutionary Command Council; and Mizban Khadr Hadi, another member of the council, who was captured Thursday. They are Nos. 16, 42 and 41 on the list, respectively.

But security on the streets remains a concern. A senior Pentagon official in Baghdad said that Iraqi police would return to their jobs Sunday wearing part of their old uniforms, but with new white shirts, and insignias removed from their hats. In addition, military officials here were preparing to send a large group of U.S. military police officers into Baghdad to take over basic law-enforcement functions.

For front-line officers such as Williams, the military police will arrive not a day too soon.

“I’m not trained for this. They need to bring in these MPs who are trained to work the street,” said Williams, a Georgia native. “I’m a combat soldier.”

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Explaining the raid on Al Masbah Street, Williams said he figured it was either the fruit of a car-theft ring or a key link to Uday Hussein.

“That kind of information is what we’re looking for,” he said of the early-morning tip.

He figured that if the cars were Uday’s, they might have been stashed there to speed a future getaway. And even if it were just a car-theft cache, confiscating more than $100,000 worth of hot vehicles would send a message to the neighborhood.

Besides, he said, the Army’s additional missions of restoring the basic needs -- food, water and power -- were well underway. About 40% of Baghdad’s electricity has been restored, U.S. officials said Friday.

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“So we’re looking for any of the 55 most wanted and at the same time trying to get all the utilities up and help promote a sense of security,” Williams added.

Hisham Nasser Hussein, the superintendent at the building raided by Williams, said the owner told him that he had bought the cars on the street for resale. The owner added that his workers drove them into the building’s ground floor and sealed them for safety.

The caretaker said he believed the owner’s story, and he shrugged when asked whether the cars might be Uday’s.

Either way, the caretaker said of the U.S. Army raid, “this makes us feel safer. Because their headquarters is just nearby, and they will come if there is trouble here.”

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Just then, the owner pulled up and then fired half a dozen rounds that shattered the evening peace, sending a few neighbors for cover. Most simply continued sipping their tea in well-manicured, postage-stamp gardens, as stray dogs nosed the rubbish in the gutters outside.


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