Seeking an Angle in the Sunni Triangle

Times Staff Writer

Here in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, former regime loyalists -- or FRLs, as the GIs call them -- are as numerous as scorpions and the deck is stacked against anyone trying to diminish the legend of Saddam Hussein.

On the dusty road leading to town, amid marshes and clusters of palms that make good ambush sites, U.S. patrols pass and young girls turn their eyes away. Some days the boys are friendly and wave; on others they throw stones. The unsmiling men are the easiest to read, with their icy stares that look right through the Americans as though they weren't even there.

It has fallen on the 4th Infantry Division -- a unit that took 5,000 casualties in a 26-day period in Normandy during World War II -- to be both warrior and peacekeeper here, and in the process wean Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority, which Hussein lavished with favors, away from the established order of the past. The challenge of the mission is underscored by a stark fact: The division is the most frequently attacked U.S. unit in Iraq.

What has emerged here in the triangle that reaches from Baghdad's northern doorstep to Tikrit, Hussein's hometown, is a war of attrition. The Americans detain and kill anti-coalition fighters in the belief the insurgents' shell will eventually crack. The fighters retaliate with roadside explosions and mortar attacks on the assumption the Americans at some point will lose heart and go home.

On Sunday, anti-coalition forces raised the stakes in the Sunni Triangle, shooting down a U.S. Chinook helicopter near Fallouja with a shoulder-fired missile. Sixteen soldiers attached to the 82nd Airborne Division were killed and 20 wounded, the U.S. command said. And Monday, a U.S. soldier was killed near Tikrit by an improvised bomb.

"They're looking for the magic number," said Lt. Col. Aubrey Garner, commander of the division's 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment. "Nineteen, 25, 1,000 -- whatever they figure the magic number of casualties is that will make us pull out, like we did in Somalia.

"But you know what?" said Garner, a 39-year-old West Point graduate who has tacked a poster of the former dictator to the wall above his cot, next to a scribbled note from his 2-year-old son that says, "I Love You, Dad." "There is no magic number. We're here until the job gets done."

As both military commander and civil administrator, Garner is the ultimate authority in the area -- in effect, the governor, sheriff, judge and treasurer. It is not a job soldiers are trained to do, and sometimes the work at hand seems so overwhelming, the local U.S.-appointed governing body so dysfunctional, it's hard to know what the result will be, he said in a recent interview.

But yes, he added after some thought, there has been progress, made an inch at a time.

"Most of the educated people support what we're trying to do," said Garner's Egyptian American translator, Wea McKeil, who took a leave from his managerial job at Wal-Mart in Kansas to work here. "The problem in the Sunni Triangle is that 70% of these people are completely uneducated. They figure if there's change, they lose."

The division's 3,800-member 3rd Brigade, which includes Garner's battalion, arrived in June. It was charged with opening Highway 1, where convoys were being ambushed daily with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

The brigade succeeded, and today the main north-south route is clogged with trailer trucks that roll from Baghdad to Balad and on to Mosul, more than 200 miles northwest of the capital, usually without incident.

But the insurgents changed tactics. They reduced the frequency of ambushes in favor of roadside bombs, often on secondary roads. The bombs are detonated by remote-control devices, such as cellphones. American casualties grew in ones and twos, although most victims were Iraqi passersby.

In recent weeks, the attacks have became more sophisticated. Some bombs are designed to cause delayed secondary explosions or are rigged with fake trip wires that make them treacherous to disarm.

"It's a vote for Darwin," Garner said, his M-4 carbine pointed toward a potential ambush site on the road to Tarmiyah. Ahead of and behind his Humvee were scout vehicles with mounted machine guns. "We killed all the stupid ones. We're dealing with a smarter bunch now."

Garner's battalion -- most of whose 600 members served in the Balkans -- has suffered no combat fatalities and, after seven months of war, his soldiers still volunteer for combat.

"I've got as good a chance of surviving an operation as I do a ride on an L.A. freeway," one sergeant said.

"The guys would much rather be out doing an operation than be in a static defensive position," said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Loesch. "They love going out on patrol."

Division commanders say they find and disarm more than half the roadside bombs before they explode, partly because civilians are coming forward in increasing numbers to provide intelligence. Some of the bombers are paid $500 to plant the explosives, intelligence officers say. In addition, the 4th Division's almost daily raids have put scores of Hussein loyalists out of business.

The loyalists detained in raids are hooded, handcuffed and interrogated, through interpreters, by intelligence specialists. Some are sent to unidentified jails and prisons, where the coalition can hold them indefinitely. Many are released. Of the 270 suspects Garner's unit has detained, about 50 were deemed hard-core Baathists involved with attacks on U.S. forces.

Col. Frederick Rudesheim, commander of the 3rd Brigade, believes that ultimately the Sunni Triangle requires a political, not a military, solution. But he admits that finding and building consensus is difficult in an environment where tribal chieftains seem more interested in their clan's advancement than in constructing a new Iraq on a foundation of democracy.

"Overall, I definitely see improvement," Rudesheim said. "When we came into places like Tarmiyah, there was significant outright hostility. We were the first coalition force they'd seen. Now people's attitude seems to fall between ambivalent anger and acceptance."

The pace of political progress is worrying to most commanders. Natural community leaders don't step forward for fear of being targets of the resistance. Iraqi technocrats who understand how a sewer system works or how to increase electrical output remain in Baghdad.

The 20 sheiks whom Garner has appointed to fill the city council seats are divided, indecisive and unwilling to take the initiative, having lived under a system in which the Hussein government thought for the people, provided for the people and spoke for the people.

Back at his command post -- a desolate Hussein-era munitions depot an hour's drive from Tarmiyah and 50 miles north of Baghdad -- Garner hunched over the radio while each unit summarized its day's action. Six incoming mortar rounds here, a roadside bomb there. Nothing unusual.

Finally, Garner radioed back: "Nothing further this evening. Remember, your job is to kill, maim or capture the enemy. Be vigilant and take care of your brothers."

Later, he laid plans for a dawn raid a few miles away. Unlike earlier raids in which U.S. soldiers kicked in doors at 2 a.m. and arrested every man in sight, his new strategy called for arriving at first light, knocking on doors, using Iraqi translators and picking up selected suspects.

The original tactic, he had decided, only ensured that "if the people didn't hate Americans already, they were going to hate us by the time the raid was over."

The six-man unit, led by the battalion's intelligence officer, Capt. Sean Nowlan, swooped down on the homes before breakfast and met no resistance in arresting high school principal Mohammed Salah and Ali Ahmed, both Baath Party members suspected of planning and financing attacks on U.S. troops.

"Saddam Hussein is good," Salah said.

"Saddam Hussein is a donkey," Spc. Jason Lamb replied, putting plastic handcuffs around Salah's wrists.

A small crowd gathered. Nowlan asked a sheik to translate his exact words: "Be warned: If any of you stand in the way of the coalition, we will come and get you too."

The crowd was silent, its collective stare as hostile as daggers. Nowlan gave everyone a polite smile and a small wave and then the raiding party was gone, rumbling down the road in a Humvee with Salah and Ahmed.

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