Town Preoccupies the Occupation

Times Staff Writer

He called in airstrikes with a pair of 1,000-pound, laser-guided bombs on a home identified as a guerrilla sanctuary.

He ordered the detention of a popular religious leader and a well-known tribal chief when evidence surfaced linking them to the armed opposition.

To the many former high-ranking Iraqi officers lying low in this caldron of anti-U.S. sentiment, he has issued a stern warning: "We're going to take 'em down one at a time."

The Pentagon is proclaiming a get-tough approach -- dubbed Operation Iron Hammer -- in the Sunni Muslim heartland of central and western Iraq, where a stubborn insurgency has cost the lives of growing numbers of U.S.-led troops, stalled the national reconstruction effort and contributed to an intense political debate in Washington.

Perhaps no one better exemplifies this resolve than Col. Jefforey Smith, commander of the 5,000 or so paratroopers of the 3rd Brigade of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division.

And perhaps no place better illustrates the challenge facing U.S.-led forces in Iraq than Fallouja, a once-obscure provincial town now infamous as the symbolic hub of the opposition. Just south of here, enemy fire brought down a Chinook helicopter this month and killed 16 soldiers.

Images of the gleeful youngsters of Fallouja celebrating alongside a smoldering U.S. Humvee set ablaze in a roadside bombing have been broadcast across the globe. It is not a picture that pleases this no-nonsense Ohio State graduate, 42, who is charged with the task of taming Fallouja and its hostile environs in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle.

"There's nothing easy about Fallouja," Smith acknowledged the other day at the sprawling 3rd Brigade compound here. "But I will tell you that Fallouja does have potential.... I'll be patient with the people willing to work with us. But if the Iraqi former regime loyalists want to continue to attack us, they're going to die in the process or be captured."

Just last week, 82nd Airborne troops here killed six "aggressors" and wounded four after being fired on, the military said.

In recent days, measures ordered by Smith have included a return to bombing runs by aircraft -- a mode of attack little seen in the last six months. One assault targeted suspected ambushers northeast of Fallouja with three 500-pound munitions; the other involved the 1,000-pound bombs, which obliterated the home south of Baghdad, also in Smith's sector.

Outraged Iraqis labeled the bombings Israeli-style reprisals for guerrilla assaults that cost the lives of three 82nd Airborne soldiers.

"This will only make people more angry with the Americans," predicted Salah Nouri, a father of four who lives near the Fallouja blast site, a barren stretch of debris-strewn desert along the highway east to Baghdad.

The colonel is unapologetic.

"This is a very deliberate, very precise application of combat power, designed to kill the enemy and deny him sanctuary," said Smith, a 20-year Army veteran who served in the Persian Gulf War.

The emergence of Fallouja as a flashpoint has much to do with the area's standing as a bastion of support for Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. According to the U.S. military, 80% of Falloujans supported the regime or owed their livelihood to the Baathists in Hussein's highly centralized economic system.

As U.S. forces advanced on Baghdad last spring, regime loyalists were able to regroup in welcoming locales like Fallouja and, eventually, set in motion what has become an effective guerrilla campaign. Money and weapons haven't been problems, given the proliferation of arms here and the ill-gotten fortunes of many Hussein cronies.

Ex-Baathists found it easy enough to enlist disaffected and typically unemployed young men to do their dirty work, often for a price, U.S. commanders say. Recruits from Fallouja have also shown up elsewhere in the country wreaking havoc, officials say.

"A lot of people came here and went to ground," Smith said. "And once things slowed down a little bit, they got a bit more organized, and we started seeing some attacks."

Systematic Campaign

Under Smith's direction, the 82nd Airborne has embarked on a systematic campaign to hunt down Hussein loyalists.

On Oct. 31, soldiers raided the home of a former Iraqi air force colonel, Taha Dayea Jaab, and seized bomb-making materiel and instructions, maps with roadside bombing locations pinpointed, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and letters addressed to Hussein, U.S. authorities said. Jaab, a scientist who collaborated on Hussein's Al Samoud missile project, was taken into custody along with three alleged confederates on suspicion of funding, planning and conducting attacks against coalition forces.

Two days later, two former Iraqi generals were captured at their homes in central Fallouja. The Army accused the pair of paying Baath Party members and pro-Hussein Fedayeen forces to carry out attacks against U.S. soldiers and pro-coalition Iraqis. Additional operations targeting as many as 10 more ex-generals thought to be living in Fallouja are in the works.

"We are very serious about what we are doing here," Smith said as he sat at his neat desk, where a camouflage-covered Bible and a leaflet marking a remembrance ceremony for troops killed in action lay. "And we are going to succeed whether they go with us or not."

While it is too early to make a definitive assessment, Smith said he saw signs of improvement. Roadside bombings in the Fallouja area dropped by more than 50% once the scientist and the two generals were in custody, he said. The Army suffered 18 such blasts in the 10 days preceding the capture of the three; there were eight such attacks in the 10 days following the detentions, he said.

Mortar attacks on the 82nd Airborne compound here have plummeted since the colonel authorized the use of radar-guided howitzers to knock out mortar positions. Several attackers were killed and mortar emplacements destroyed, he said.

Also, he said, more people in Fallouja are coming forward with intelligence about the opposition. "That's an indicator that they don't want these bad guys here anymore than we do," Smith said.

Not Eager to Die

Although the Bush administration has made much of the influx of foreign fighters into the country, Smith and other commanders interviewed in Iraq say the vast majority of the guerrilla force -- which the U.S. estimates at 5,000 strong -- is Iraqi. Nor do these fighters seem especially fanatical and eager to die. Anti-U.S. combatants prefer a hit-and-run strategy of ambushes and the placement of homemade bombs and mines along roadsides, often with lethal effect.

"The enemy forces that we have faced -- they're not martyrs," Smith said

Many Iraqis suspect that the suicide bombers whose recent attacks in Baghdad and the southern city of Nasiriyah stunned the country are foreign militants who were invited in by the Hussein regime or infiltrated the country after the U.S. invasion. Only one such suicide squad is known to have surfaced in Fallouja, Smith said.

All three members of the squad fought furiously during an engagement with 82nd Airborne troops last month, tossing grenades and firing AK-47 rounds, until they were riddled with bullets. An examination of their corpses showed that all three had shaved their body hair -- an apparent preparation for martyrdom.

In Fallouja and throughout the Sunni Triangle, commanders say, the insurgency has received a major boost from radical Muslim clerics.

It was in Fallouja where, during the summer, an explosion at a suspected bomb factory in a mosque compound killed 10 Iraqis, including a fiery young imam who had repeatedly cited Koranic verse to agitate for the expulsion of infidel "invaders" from Muslim lands.

U.S. authorities are known to monitor Friday prayers and be on the lookout for holy men crossing the line from expression of opinion to incitement of attacks. Imam Jamal al Rifal, prayer leader of a major mosque in Fallouja, crossed that line, the Army says. Soldiers detained the imam this month, and he remains in U.S. custody, accused of provoking attacks and harboring an anti-coalition militant.

The same evening Rifal was arrested, U.S. forces detained a prominent tribal leader, Sheik Barakat Saadon Essawi, and accused him of financing attacks against troops. The two arrests prompted vociferous protests from Fallouja's religious and tribal establishments. But Smith said he laid out the case against the pair, and the protests subsided.

"The sheiks we meet with, they talk the talk, and we're going to hold them accountable for their talk," said Smith, who, like U.S. commanders elsewhere in the country, envisions a greater role in the new Iraq for the long-marginalized professional and educated classes. "We want to balance it out. We don't want any one group to have power."

The United States is also turning increasingly to former Iraqi army brass in search of cooperation.

Many U.S. commanders have come to the belated realization that many ex-officers of Hussein's army -- vetted to ensure they are not hard-line Baathists or implicated in atrocities -- could be the U.S.' best allies in seeking out and destroying guerrilla cells. They speak the language, know the country and culture and probably even know some of the people who are orchestrating the attacks.

The U.S. Army, as part of the ongoing process of turning security matters over to Iraqis, is looking for former officers to assist in organizing the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, which is expected to work under U.S. command until the new Iraqi army is ready for deployment.

Smith is combing the ranks of former officers for future battalion and company commanders in the civil defense units and would also like to hire a former general "to kind of help me understand the culture."

"I still believe that the great majority of [Iraqis] want peace and want to work," said Smith, who also oversees a $4-million plan to rebuild schools, factories and other facilities here. "We know that some of them are doing attacks just for economic benefit.... We're not asking them to like us, either. Just so they stop shooting at us."

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