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U.S. Sees Samarra as a Model Operation

Times Staff Writer

The bullets had barely stopped flying here when a convoy of military engineers braved the deserted streets this week to begin rebuilding water pumps, electricity lines and roads.

It was risky business. At the first checkpoint, a skittish Iraqi national guardsman fired a warning shot. Then, U.S. tanks accidentally ran over and mangled new aluminum electricity cables awaiting installation.

Fearful that patrolling U.S. soldiers would mistake them for insurgents and open fire, workers refused to return to the local water treatment plant until they received a hastily scribbled authorization note from a U.S. commander.

Moving so quickly with reconstruction projects in a chaotic combat zone where residents dared travel only with white flags may seem overly eager, but it’s part of an evolving U.S. military strategy to oust insurgents in Iraq and restore stability before January’s election.

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The new model -- previewed in Najaf this summer and fine-tuned in Friday’s invasion of this predominantly Sunni Muslim city -- comes after a string of failed U.S. efforts over the last year to quell insurgents in other hot spots, including Fallouja, Ramadi and Baghdad’s Sadr City.

The blueprint involves invading with a massive show of force, relying heavily on Iraqi troops, attempting to win over the local population with swift reconstruction aid and maintaining a U.S. presence after the fighting stops.

The approach had mixed success in Najaf, where the Old City was heavily damaged and scores of civilians were killed in three weeks of skirmishes that ended with an uneasy treaty that left radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr free to fight another day.

But military officials are quickly claiming success in Samarra, which fell in less than a day with moderate damage and relatively light casualties. U.S. officials say the Samarra approach could become the model for crushing the insurgency in other so-called no-go zones.

“What has to be done in that country is what basically was done in Samarra,” U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Monday in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations.

On Tuesday, the U.S. appeared to be applying at least a portion of the same model to an insurgent stronghold south of the capital. A joint U.S.-Iraqi force of 3,000 swept through Babil province, arresting 30 suspected insurgents and seizing an alleged training camp.

Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste, the 1st Infantry Division commander who oversaw the Samarra operation, said he was sharing the lessons of the recent invasion with other commanders facing similar challenges.

But Batiste cautioned against expecting the approach in Samarra to be a cookie-cutter solution for the insurgency across Iraq.

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“Each city has its own problem set,” Batiste said.

In addition, it remains to be seen whether the model will work over the long term. As the U.S. saw in Fallouja and in a previous effort to clean up Najaf in May, insurgents have a pattern of melting away, only to reemerge a few months later. In April and May, the military reached fragile peace agreements that eventually fell apart in both cities.

The U.S. tried to pacify Samarra once before, in December, but seven months later Americans found themselves on the outskirts of the city as insurgents gradually took control of the police and city council.

In July, a uniformed police officer drove a car bomb into the Iraqi national guard compound, killing five U.S. soldiers. By September, rebels supporting fugitive militant Abu Musab Zarqawi openly marched down the streets of the city.

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When the time came for a second invasion, the military opted for a swift attack, striking the city from all directions with 3,000 U.S. soldiers assigned to five battalions. That’s larger than the 2,500-strong force deployed in Fallouja in April. In August, the U.S. deployed a similar 3,000-strong force to try to retake Najaf, a city with at least twice the population of Samarra.

“We overwhelmed them,” said Army Maj. Rick Heyward, operations officer for Task Force 1-14, which participated in the invasion. “We took the city in 12 hours.”

The speed of the battle kept casualties relatively low, officials said. About 147 Iraqis were killed, including 127 believed to be insurgents, the military said. One soldier was killed by sniper fire.

“This was how an assault is supposed to be, not like what you heard about in Najaf or Fallouja,” said Army Spc. Robin Johnson of Task Force 1-26, who has also fought in Afghanistan and Africa. “It was textbook. We were expecting so many more casualties.”

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Skeptics suggest that the Samarra invasion went smoothly because many of the insurgents simply dropped their weapons and hid in houses. The U.S. estimated that at least 500 insurgents were in Samarra, far more than the number killed or captured.

Others suggest that the insurgency was never that big to begin with.

“If there had been a large number of insurgents in the city, the fighting would have gone on for 10 days and there would have been a lot more casualties,” said Qaten Hamada, a deputy governor for Salahuddin province, in which Samarra is located.

In Samarra, about 2,000 Iraqis were part of the operation from the start, rather than employed as an afterthought, U.S. officials said. Although Iraqi national guard units were sent to Najaf in August, the standoff was settled just after the Iraqi security forces began arriving.

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“The biggest difference was that we had the Iraqi forces and the Iraqi interim government focused on Samarra,” said Col. Randal Dragon, brigade commander of the 1-26.

As U.S. troops cleared insurgent strongholds and pounded the city with airstrikes, four units of Iraqi forces seized sensitive buildings, such as the Golden Mosque and its ancient minaret.

A large force of Iraqi officers will stay behind in Samarra after U.S. troops begin to reduce their presence this week. Such a step will be critical to ensuring that Iraqis can maintain order once they take charge.

“These guys are the future of Iraq,” Dragon said.

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About 1,200 members of the 202nd Iraqi national guard, 7th Iraqi army battalion and 1st Ministry of Interior commando battalion will remain in Samarra. In addition, the governor has pledged to send 1,500 more police officers to reinforce security until local officers are retrained, Dragon said.

Most of the new police and security officers are coming from different parts of the country. “That’s another lesson we learned,” said Maj. Jeffrey Church, executive officer for 1-26. “Everyone here has a tribal agenda.”

The old police department collapsed when friction arose last spring and police refused to crack down on tribal or family members. The force shrank from 700 to 50.

A key component of the U.S. model is reconstruction. As the engineers observed on their first post-invasion tour of Samarra, putting a city back together is more difficult than taking it apart.

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“This is really the hard part,” said Lt. Col. Blair Schanz, commander of the 9th Engineer Battalion. “Combat is relatively easy.”

The military has allocated about $1.5 million for 24 projects around Samarra. An additional $20 million has been earmarked for Samarra from the $18.4 billion allocated by Congress.

Finally, U.S. military officials say they have learned to stay engaged in the cities they secure. Military officials in Samarra insist that they will never again agree to keeping U.S. troops outside city limits, as is the case in peace deals signed in Fallouja and Najaf. Such agreements give insurgents time and space to regroup, military leaders say.

Still, some Iraqis continue to believe that the U.S. presence causes friction. “If they stay inside the city, they will only create more enemies,” said Hamada, the deputy governor.

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U.S. officials, however, insist that they are staying put. As the U.S. prepared to hand over authority to the interim Iraqi government in June, Batiste expected that his soldiers would pull out of the cities and turn power over to Iraqi security forces.

Asked this week whether he’d now agree to an Iraqi request for U.S. forces to stay outside a city in his area of responsibility, Batiste responded: “Not while I’m around.”


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