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Iraqi soldiers make strides in Baqubah

Times Staff Writer

Lt. Qusai had his doubts last week when he took his men into an insurgent haven in the western part of this city for the first time.

“Honestly, I thought this operation would never be successful because I had information that Al Qaeda had big guns and RPGs,” rocket-propelled grenades, said the Iraqi army commander who provided only one name. “We thought that all the people here are terrorists and everyone is bad, even the women and children.”

To his surprise, many of the Sunni Arabs welcomed the Iraqi soldiers who followed U.S. infantrymen through the dusty, bomb-scarred streets, which shimmered in the blazing heat. One man offered them glasses of water on a tray, and a woman wept at the sight of them.

“It was the worst part of the city,” said the stocky, no-nonsense officer wearing camouflage and leather gloves. “But I found ... that not all the people here are bad.”

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The patrols, which began Thursday, were a small step toward returning Iraqi security forces to three western Baqubah neighborhoods they had largely abandoned.

Al Qaeda-linked insurgents overran large parts of the city, which they declared the capital of their shadow government, the Islamic State of Iraq.

The Iraqi troops’ ability to control the streets of Baqubah is a crucial component of the U.S. plan to assert government control over the lawless capital of Diyala province, which lies between Baghdad and the border with Iran.

“They will be the forces that retain, hold and secure the neighborhoods” after U.S. troops have swept through, said Army Brig. Gen. Mick Bednarek, deputy commanding officer for operations in northern Iraq.

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After the U.S. military gave Iraqi forces lead responsibility for the province last summer, security began to break down.

There were reports of sweeping raids and abusive treatment by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi police force and army against Sunni Arabs, who have a slight majority in Diyala, U.S. Army officers said.

Al Qaeda poured fighters into the region after a U.S. troop buildup in Baghdad and setbacks in Al Anbar province, where Sunni tribesmen have sided with the government forces. Fighting in Diyala now accounts for more U.S. troop deaths than in Al Anbar.

Masked men who drive through some neighborhoods with guns poking out their car windows have overwhelmed the fledgling government forces.

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Before dawn on June 8, dozens of fighters overran the home of Baqubah’s police chief, Col. Ali Jorani, killing his wife, two brothers and 11 bodyguards. Jorani was not at home at the time.

His predecessor in the job, Safa Atimimi, died in an April 23 car bombing that killed nine others.

Late last year, the U.S. military stepped up oversight and training of the Iraqi security forces.

When U.S. reinforcements arrived from Baghdad in mid-March, they began systematically pursuing the insurgents one neighborhood at a time, then setting up permanent bases. Two east Baqubah neighborhoods have been largely pacified, U.S. commanders said.

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About 10,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops are involved in the campaign, launched Tuesday in west Baqubah. In Khatoon, the southernmost section of the operations area, the U.S. military conducted earth-shaking bombing runs and house-to-house searches for two days, punctuated by occasional gunfights, before bringing in the Iraqi troops.

Not a ‘ragtag bunch’

The Iraqi soldiers who deployed Thursday appeared more professional than their predecessors. They were in full uniform and body armor. Most carried assault rifles, and a few were armed with rocket-propelled grenades.

“They weren’t a ragtag bunch,” said Capt. Matthew Ryan James, commander of the Army’s Alpha Company, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, which rides in armored Strykers.

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To try to get additional information from residents, James sent them to areas that had been largely cleared by the Americans.

“We just want to introduce them to the neighborhood and maybe pick up some human intel,” he said.

James said he was impressed with the Iraqis’ ability to pick up on details and lead the Americans to weapons caches. On their first day, the Iraqis made three arrests.

The Iraqi soldiers also took charge of supplying food and water to their troops, rather than relying on U.S. transportation, James said.

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The troops were enthusiastic about patrolling with the Americans but became more hesitant when asked to enter a building on their own.

“They like you to be with them,” said Sgt. Corey Oliver of Alpha Company’s 3rd Platoon.

When residents pointed out vehicles used by insurgents, the Iraqi soldiers wanted to burn them. The Americans allowed it, explaining that it sent a message to the community that the Iraqi army was in charge.

But the Americans said the Iraqis need to earn the trust of residents who can point out the insurgents in their midst.

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The Iraqis were said to be polite to the families they met last week. Many homes, however, were abandoned as residents fled the U.S. offensive.

In one empty house, the Iraqis helped themselves to sodas and candy and offered to share with their American counterparts.

At another home, they watched television, soldiers said. When they found a water tank, they paused in their search to take baths.

Fear and relief

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Though some residents said they were willing to work with the Iraqi security forces to end the lawlessness in their area, many were fearful of them.

One elderly woman shrouded in black tipped off U.S. troops about homes used by insurgents. She pleaded tearfully with them to make sure Iraqis in the next room did not tell anyone what she had done, for fear she would be killed.

Ali Muthar, a former officer in Saddam Hussein’s army, expressed relief that the U.S. soldiers were forcing out the gunmen who had terrorized the neighborhood. But he appeared taken aback at the idea that Iraqi forces eventually would replace the American troops.

Muthar said Shiite Muslim militiamen had filled the ranks of the police and army in Diyala, as they have in Baghdad, and used the forces as cover to kill Sunnis.

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The widespread fear of Shiite militiamen appears to have been exploited by Al Qaeda as it dug into the neighborhoods.

“Without Al Qaeda, the militias might overrun us,” Muthar said.

Muthar’s son joined the police force and was killed in a drive-by shooting last year, a death the family blames on the young man’s fellow officers. Muthar carries his son’s police identification card and pulled it out sadly when questioned by U.S. soldiers.

The U.S. military has been encouraging more local recruitment into the security forces. Qusai, who is from Khatoon, said almost half of his men are from Diyala; the rest came from Baghdad and the overwhelmingly Shiite south.

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The U.S. military is also allowing armed residents, some of whom probably fought against the Americans a few months ago, to patrol their neighborhoods in parts of east Baqubah. The move is part of a countrywide push to work with local leaders, including tribal sheiks, clerics and some insurgent groups that have turned against Al Qaeda after the successes in Al Anbar.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, has criticized the strategy, saying the Americans are in effect backing militias.

zavis@latimes.com


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