Forces in western desert look toward the horizon

Times Staff Writer

On a sandy promontory overlooking the desert that stretches to Syria and Jordan in western Iraq, U.S. Army officers and Iraqi police officials were discussing the future.

The Americans' concept of the future involved the Iraqis taking responsibility for catching insurgent smugglers and bomb-makers along the two freeways that stretch from the border region to Baghdad.

The future starts now, Capt. Ian Lauer told Iraqi police Col. Jassim Mohammed Ali, who served in the Iraqi army's special forces under the late Saddam Hussein.

"We've got to force them to have confidence," Lauer said. "They'll spend years saying they're not ready."

Ali, a broad-chested veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, insisted that he was ready for the challenge.

"If we see bad people, we will arrest them," he said through an interpreter. "If they fight us, we will show no mercy. If they use one bullet, we will use two. If they use 10, we will use 100."

As part of the U.S. plan to withdraw from Al Anbar province and hand over security duties to the Iraqi army and police force, the Army's Task Force 1-77 Armor is ceding the desolate area 25 miles west of Ramadi to Ali's "emergency response unit," the Iraqi version of a SWAT team.

The unit's troops carry Soviet weapons once used by Hussein's army. They drive Ford trucks supplied by the United States, but they lack body armor and have only rudimentary communications gear.

"Sometimes you feel, 'We're forcing them to do stuff,' and then you think, 'Hey, it's your country,' " said Lauer, commander of the 1-77's Charlie Company. "Even if they had the equipment we have, some would complain."

The process of turning over responsibility to the Iraqis is slow and incremental. For instance, U.S. forces may be turning over freeway security to the Iraqis -- a largely symbolic move -- but cannot yet give them responsibility for the transport of prisoners on those freeways.

Just minutes after the meeting with Ali and his troops, Lauer's convoy went to an Iraqi police station to pick up a suspected insurgent.

Iraqi police said the skinny 17-year-old had confessed to making bombs and stealing a weapon from a Humvee that had been bombed.

Across Al Anbar, judges and prosecutors have been targeted or intimidated. Many court buildings are a shambles and court personnel are dead, in hiding or have fled the country, officials said. Thus, the chore of detaining the suspected insurgent and shipping him to Baghdad for trial fell to U.S. forces.

In the roundabout world of Iraqi justice, suspects go from Iraqi custody to American custody; then U.S. officials sift through evidence submitted by Iraqi police to determine whether it would be sufficient in an Iraqi court.

Lauer checked the blindfolded suspect for signs of torture and found none.

"I am taking you into American custody," he said. At day's end, the Iraqi was at Camp Ramadi, the nearby U.S. base.

Ali, on the promontory with an icy wind blowing in from Syria more than 100 miles to the west, said that before the Americans came, he was once stationed at Camp Ramadi.

"Hopefully," Lauer said, "you'll be there again someday."

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