Striking a delicate balance in Iraq

Posted: Monday, June 09, 2003

KHALDIYAH, Iraq In the modest police station, U.S. soldiers took measurements for Iraqi officers' new uniforms. At the hospital, a military doctor asked staffers what they needed. A commander told the mayor that, when the shooting stops, his troops will leave and normal life will return.

But if another U.S. soldier gets killed, Lt. Col. Philip DeCamp, commander of the 4th Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment warned, ''I'm going to sweep through, and it's not going to be fun.''

In the conservative heartland of Iraq, where the U.S. Army has more than tripled the number of troops in three communities along a key supply route, that tension shows the contradictions U.S. soldiers face.

They must maintain a balance between trying to help Iraqis rebuild their shattered country, but fight the insurgents whose resentment boils over into violence.

The U.S. 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade was ordered into the area June 4 to quell the violence using both incentive and firepower what most everyone in the 3rd ID calls the ''carrot and stick'' approach.

In Khaldiyah and Habaniyah, which border each other west of the much larger city of Fallujah, DeCamp offers supplies, cash and manpower.

But he also has more than 500 soldiers, 30 Abrams tanks, 16 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and more than a dozen gun trucks plus a 500-soldier military police battalion on call if needed.

''We know bad guys are living around here,'' DeCamp told the mayor of Khaldiyah, Majed Baseer Ali, on Saturday. DeCamp then pointed to the police chief: ''He's going to point them out, and we're going to clear them out.''

Insurgents have fired at U.S. soldiers almost daily in Fallujah, Habaniyah and Khaldiyah, about 45 miles west of Baghdad.

Four U.S. soldiers have been killed and 21 wounded by insurgents since U.S. troops entered the area April 24. At least 23 Iraqis have been killed and 78 wounded by Americans.

Resentment here against U.S. troops is extremely high, and Iraqi officials face conflicts of their own. Majed is caught between a population that resents the Americans and U.S. troops who demand his cooperation.

Majed said that once salaries are paid again and troops get off the streets, the attacks will end. Then he explained their reluctance to cooperate more.

''For the Iraqi people, it is hard to be with the Americans,'' Majed told Capt. Chris Carter of Watkinsville, Ga., the infantry commander. ''We have our religion and culture, and it will be hard for us to be friends.''

The mayor and town councilors insist the Iraqi insurgents do not live in the area and say they are strangers from Baghdad, Syria, Iran or even Lebanon.

''If we catch them, we will arrest him,'' Majed told Carter.

The land is irrigated desert, filled with orchards, small farms and culverts with thousands of places to hide along the road. Schoolchildren use it to walk home, and women in black robes lead vegetable-laden donkeys as soldiers drive by, scanning the countryside for threats.

Iraqi men stand with their hands on their hips, staring at the soldiers standing behind heavy machine guns. The Iraqis sometimes make obscene gestures or mimic the firing of a rocket-propelled grenade.

The task force's infantry company A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment has begun trying to catch the insurgents by conducting patrols and setting up checkpoints. U.S. intelligence officers suspect there are fewer than 50 insurgents operating in the area, and if they are caught or killed, the officers think the attacks will end.

One area the infantry patrols frequently was nicknamed ''Ambush Alley'' by the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which was responsible for the area until it pulled out last week. The winding road parallels the Euphrates River from Highway 10 before heading north to Highway 1.

While the hunt continues, a military police platoon attached to DeCamp's task force that will retrain the local police and acquire for them new uniforms and weapons. They hope to begin joint patrols this week.

At the town's health clinic, U.S. Army medical personnel have begun restocking supplies and will re-establish supply channels so the facility will not run out again and staff salaries will be paid.

DeCamp hopes the assistance to the police and doctors the first of many projects will improve relations with the Iraqis and encourage cooperation until salaries are paid. But Majed, still unsatisfied, asked about housing American soldiers on old Iraqi bases nearby.

''As long as people are shooting at us,'' DeCamp responded, ''we're going to be in your neighborhood.''

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