U.S. on Offense Ahead of Vote

Times Staff Writers

U.S. forces have been mounting aggressive raids, patrols and other operations to crack down on insurgents in Sunni Arab enclaves throughout northern and central Iraq in advance of next weekend’s scheduled national election.

Hundreds of suspected guerrillas have been arrested and large caches of weapons have been seized as U.S. forces targeted alleged bomb makers and other elements of the armed rebellion.

The large-scale roundups have contributed to a surge in prisoner populations in Abu Ghraib and other U.S. lockups, where almost 8,000 detainees are being held, a new high.


The crackdown has been designed to foil strikes that could disrupt Iraq’s watershed vote, planned for Sunday.

“We want to eliminate as many of these guys as possible to stabilize things for the election,” said Capt. Sean Kuehl, assistant intelligence officer for the 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment, 1st Marine Division, which is based in the tense city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad.

Nowhere are the results of the crackdown more dramatic than in Mosul, a northern city of almost 2 million that was on the brink of lawlessness a month ago. Once a model city under U.S. occupation, Mosul has become a breeding ground for the insurgency.

Three-quarters of Mosul’s police force abandoned their posts late last year as insurgents ransacked their stations and launched a campaign of executions. The headless bodies of so-called collaborators, policemen and others who cooperated with U.S.-led forces or the interim Iraqi government were dumped along roadsides.

Sunni Muslim Arabs, many of whom are believed to be supportive of the insurgency, make up most of Mosul’s population. U.S. and Iraqi officials are aware that the credibility of the election could be threatened if violence prevents large numbers of voters from casting ballots.

In the last month, U.S. troop strength in Mosul has been increased by one-third, and the Iraqi military presence has been doubled. The combined forces have implemented a policy of “boots on the ground” -- more raids, more foot patrols, intensified policing -- that has greatly reduced attacks. About 300 suspected militants have been arrested here this month. Many others have been killed.


“We’re dismantling a lot of them,” said Army Col. Robert Brown, commander of the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, also known as the Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

Among those arrested here recently were 11 Iraqi insurgent suspects believed to have been involved in the beheadings of abductees, Interior Minister Falah Nakib said this weekend.

With U.S. troop strength in Iraq increased to about 150,000, coalition forces have been aggressively targeting trouble spots throughout Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland and in Baghdad.

A company of paratroopers was even installed in Baghdad’s notorious Haifa Street neighborhood, where guerrilla bands had roamed freely and mounted ambushes on U.S.-led forces. Potent U.S. operations have also been launched in the violent area south of the capital and the restive areas to the north and west.

Marines recently engaged in three days of gun battles in Ramadi, killing an estimated 15 insurgents. Three soldiers from an Army battalion that shares responsibility for that city were killed when their convoy encountered an explosives-laden car.

On Sunday, the U.S. reported that a soldier was killed by small-arms fire in Mosul the day before, bringing to about 1,370 the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.


Despite the crackdown, insurgents hold sway in much of Ramadi. On Friday, news agencies reported, an Iraqi security officer was decapitated on a Ramadi street with his head left on his torso, a grisly warning to would-be collaborators with U.S. forces. U.S. commanders believe that only an effective Iraqi force can maintain order over the long term.

Mosul, in particular, has seen several cycles in which violence soared, then reinforced U.S. troops crushed the insurgents and relative calm returned -- only to be shattered when the U.S. adversary regrouped.

After the invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Mosul was held up as an example for the rest of Iraq. It was relatively peaceful with a working government and police force.

The 101st Airborne Division, with about 20,000 troops, left early last year and turned the city over to another American brigade with 5,000 soldiers. The insurgents reassembled. What followed was a campaign of assassinations of government officials, police, educators and others who were friendly to U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies.

Last summer, the provincial governor was assassinated in a well-coordinated ambush on his convoy.

But the violence skyrocketed as U.S. forces entered Fallouja in November. As that battle raged, insurgents overran police stations throughout Mosul. Thousands of officers fled, and gangs of insurgents closed off city blocks.


“The terrorists picked up on the fact that there might be an opportunity in Mosul,” said Army Lt. Col. Emmett Schaill, deputy commander of the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry.

Much of the local election staff quit, and the voter registration process was never started. The U.S. military’s civil affairs team lost all meaningful contact with the population. On Dec. 21, a suicide bomber killed 22 people by detonating explosives inside the mess hall at Camp Marez, one of three U.S. bases in the area.

Rather than an all-out assault, the recent strategy has been to establish more than a dozen outposts in Mosul, with soldiers occupying a sheep farm, a telephone station and a food warehouse, among other places.

The outposts were “an idea we had not as a defensive measure but as an offensive,” Brown said.

Previously, soldiers patrolled Mosul mostly in the eight-wheeled armored vehicles known as Strykers. Soldiers did not stay overnight in the city. With the additional resources and the new outposts, soldiers can walk through neighborhoods more frequently.

“Before, it was more single-purpose driven: Get in, make contact, get out,” Schaill said. Today, it’s more akin to policing, he added.


In the week before the November attacks on the police stations, U.S.-led forces killed one suspected insurgent and detained 72. By comparison, last week, 87 suspected insurgents were captured and 24 killed.

Because of the pressure, rebel attacks have been less effective, commanders say. Insurgents have resorted to drive-by shootings, sporadic mortar firings and “harassment” gunfire.

“When we go toe to toe with them, they lose,” said Maj. David Spencer, an intelligence officer. Today, “there’s no place in the city we can’t go.”

Roug is accompanying the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in Mosul. McDonnell reported from Baghdad. Times staff writer Tony Perry, who is with the Marines in Ramadi, contributed to this report.