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Can they fight?

Times Staff Writer

The Iraqi colonel’s phone rang shortly before the bloodshed began. Shiite militiamen were planning to overrun forces under his command, the callers warned, and his children would be killed if his soldiers fought back.

Within hours on the afternoon of March 25, militiamen with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns crossed footpaths spanning a sewage-choked canal that separates a militia stronghold in northwest Baghdad from a neighboring district where Col. Falih Hussein was in charge. Two Iraqi military positions along the canal quickly fell, and the soldiers retreated to the next defensible position.

The fight was on and would not end for five days.

In that time, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Kevin Petit saw a rocket-propelled grenade bounce off a Humvee in front of him, reminding him of the dust- and blood-filled battles he had fought in the alleyways of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1994. Hussein, for his part, sent his family to another neighborhood for safety. From the southern city of Basra, where the fighting began, and north to Baghdad, more than 600 Iraqis were killed.

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But as quickly as the fighting started, it ended Monday, a day after Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr called a cease-fire for his Mahdi Army militia.

A burning question now is how well the Iraqi security forces performed. It is sure to figure in congressional hearings starting Tuesday when Army Gen. David H. Petraeus gives his latest assessment of the Iraq war.

In this volatile slice of northwest Baghdad, at least, U.S. and Iraqi forces say the Iraqis fought admirably, but they acknowledge problems in command and control, in logistics and among national police who were not trained to handle urban warfare.

As well, Iraqis in front-line positions ran out of ammunition and had to hurry to the next battle position to get more. Iraqi police officers sometimes proved unreliable at backing up army soldiers.

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“There were pockets of excellence, but there was no synchronized excellence,” Petit said Wednesday as he re-created for a small group of reporters the battles in his area of command, which includes the filthy green waterway that separates the militia stronghold of Shula and the neighboring Ghazaliya area that Hussein was responsible for.

Like most U.S. and Iraqi military officials, Petit rejects suggestions that the Iraqis proved incapable of holding their own in the heat of battle.

The lieutenant colonel’s sentiment was echoed Wednesday by the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner.

“Overall, the majority of the Iraqi security forces performed their mission,” Bergner said. “Some were not up to the task, and the government of Iraq is taking the necessary action in those cases.”

Problems seemed more pronounced with the national police.

“Police work where they live and are inherently influenced by the politics of their community,” said a Western security official, who estimated police desertions at more than 50% in Mahdi Army strongholds such as Baghdad’s Sadr City and parts of Basra.

In Basra, Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Kareem Khalaf said 407 Iraqi police officers had been fired for allegedly working with militias during the fighting.

The Iraqi government has not yet released desertion figures, but Hussein said five soldiers went AWOL in his area. As his situation showed, one challenge facing Iraqi forces if Shiite-on-Shiite fighting erupts again could be getting Iraqi soldiers to shoot at their brethren.

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Like many soldiers in this area, Hussein has friends and relatives in Shula who faced repercussions if the military confronted the militias there.

“People were calling me on my cellphone, threatening to kill my kids,” said Hussein, a husky man with a gray-flecked mustache and a red beret perched on his head. He commands the 4th Battalion of the 22nd Brigade in the Iraqi army’s 6th Division.

Hussein said he sent his family to another neighborhood as warnings and messages began pouring in to his forces from people they knew in Shula. They said, “Be cautious, be careful, because JAM and special groups are going to do something,” said Hussein, using terms for the Mahdi Army militia and splinter groups.

Petit said he sympathized with people in Hussein’s predicament.

“I think the hardest part of this is the family of the guy in the Iraqi army unit lives there, and his friends live there,” he said, referring to the areas from which their enemies flowed.

As the warnings came in to Hussein, Iraqi forces were moved into position in vulnerable areas: to the roof of a vacant mosque at the entrance to Shula, where the brick dome and sandbags provided cover; to the wide avenue leading through Hurriya, a nearby militia stronghold; and to bunkers in Ghazaliya.

Extra American forces were deployed to back up the Iraqi positions in the three neighborhoods, said U.S. Army Col. Bill Hickman, who commands the area encompassing the districts on the west side of the Tigris River.

The area has had trouble since February 2006, when the bombing of a venerated Shiite mosque north of Baghdad unleashed sectarian violence across the capital and the nation.

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In November 2006, Shiite militiamen forced most Sunni Arab families out of Hurriya, now a Mahdi Army stronghold.

In Ghazaliya, Iraqi soldiers helped the Mahdi Army expand the neighborhood’s northern Shiite section before the local commander, known as a Sadr sympathizer, was transferred out. The area is now split, with Sunnis in the south and Shiites in the north.

Shula remains a Mahdi Army bastion.

The most recent attacks here began just hours after Iraqi forces hit Shiite militia positions in Basra, 275 miles to the south. A U.S. military map of Hickman’s area shows 13 red arrows indicating attack spots, many of which were hit more than once with rocket-propelled grenades and mortar, small-arms and machine-gun fire.

U.S. Army Capt. Jeremy Ussery said the fighting was constant for four or five days. He spoke while standing on a highway overpass overlooking the vacant mosque that had served as the Iraqi army battle station. Iraqi troops remained on the roof Wednesday, and U.S. tanks idled in the streets below, keeping watch as Iraqi security forces frisked people entering the neighborhood.

Ussery said the Iraqis, and U.S. forces stationed on the overpass throughout the fighting, took more hits than he could count.

In the meantime, Hussein’s phone was ringing with the threats against his family and with warnings that militia fighters were crossing the canal a few miles away.

From the decrepit buildings and narrow alleys on the near side of the canal, the gunmen took aim at Iraqi forces and at the U.S. troops who came to their aid.

Petit compared the combat to the onslaught he faced in Mogadishu at the height of fighting there, when Somali gunmen would pop up from behind garbage piles or crumbling walls, or simply leap into the middle of the road and open fire.

He indicated a dirt road leading away from the canal.

“We came down it one day and from every angle, we were shot at,” Petit said. He had watched the grenade slam into the side of the vehicle in front of him. It was a dud and fell to the ground, like a rubber-tipped arrow whose suction cup fails, he said.

As the fighting raged, the bridge linking Ghazaliya to Shula was closed. Only pregnant women trying to reach a nearby hospital in Shula were allowed to pass, and they had to walk.

On Wednesday, the bridge had reopened for pedestrians only. A U.S. M-88 armored vehicle with a .50-caliber machine gun sat in the middle.

Petit said the tide turned in this area Friday, after Iraqi troops repelled an attack at one of their positions without U.S. assistance. It emboldened them, he said.

He is confident that things will stay quiet in his corner of Baghdad, Petit said, because Iraqi forces here proved tougher than militia members had expected.

“But of course, the guys shooting at you have the last word,” he said.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ned Parker in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Basra contributed to this report.


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