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Soldiers in Sunni Town Run Into Wall of Silence

Residents of Samarra Fear Reprisals for Informing on Rebels

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2004; Page A17

SAMARRA, Iraq, Dec. 22 -- The soldiers kicked the wooden doors open and swarmed through the houses, rolling up rugs, looking through cabinets, searching boxes, pushing aside couches. Within minutes, they had lined up the Iraqi men they had found inside. The men were taken outside and made to squat in the late-night darkness, their breath streaming out in faint, wispy clouds as their hands pushed flat against a concrete wall.

The soldiers were from the U.S. Army Special Forces, the Iraqi National Guard and Apache Company of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment. They were looking for a suspected insurgent, but the insurgent was not there.

Spec. Denver Claywell, 22, of Winchester, Va., uses his sniper scope to look out over Samarra from atop a minaret. Claywell, with the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, often fires at enemies to deter attacks on troops below. (Josh White -- The Washington Post)

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The Sunday night raid was what soldiers here call a "dry hole." They received an intelligence tip, and it led to nothing. They broke down doors and interrogated people who appeared to have no connection to the war the United States is waging. The soldiers paid the families in U.S. dollars for the broken door jambs and the splintered cabinet doors that hung askew.

The frustrating dead end was a symptom of what officers here agree is a virtual intelligence meltdown in Samarra, a city 65 miles north of Baghdad in the Sunni Triangle, an area where the insurgency runs deep. Rebels have intimidated the local population, launching attacks from neighborhoods where residents now fear the consequences of helping the American occupiers.

"It's all about intimidation," said Lt. Col. Eric O. Schacht, commander of the Army's 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, which oversees Samarra. Schacht said the spreading fear had stymied his unit's ability to gather intelligence. "The residents do know who the bad guys are. They're afraid. It's a daily struggle that we have to fight.

"We just always have to get ahead" of the insurgents, he added. "They're pretty good at getting their message out."

The message is carried in mighty explosions that rock this city, in AK-47 assault rifle fire, in mortar attacks, and even in carefully placed propaganda that warns Iraqis that cooperation with the Americans will not be tolerated. Masked men arrive at the doors of Samarrans who have been seen talking to soldiers. The residents are told that if they provide any assistance to the soldiers, they will be killed.

'We're in a Bit of a Rut'

On Tuesday afternoon, soldiers from Bushmaster Company of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment cleared residents out of a neighborhood where they were preparing to detonate what was believed to be an improvised bomb. One man came to his front gate and timidly spoke with an interpreter working for the U.S. forces. Muhammed Hassan, 42, his eyes darting across the large dirt lot next to his home, said he was uncomfortable letting American soldiers onto his roof to secure the area.

Just days earlier, Hassan's uncle had been killed for opposing the insurgents. Hassan moved his son out of the area because insurgents threatened to kill his family if he continued to let the soldiers into his home. Masked men came to his door.

"They all watch us and follow all of us," Hassan said. "This is the fifth time the Americans have put snipers on the roof. . . . Of course we are afraid. Of course we don't want to help."

Residents in hostile areas of the city often tell soldiers that they don't know any "thieves," using the English word, and haven't seen any illegal activity, even when they were near an attack. Immediately after a rocket-propelled grenade injured three soldiers this week near a downtown school, several local families said they didn't hear it or see it. Some vaguely described a white car carrying two masked men.

Capt. Eliot Patrick, 28, the 1st Battalion's intelligence officer, said he has to operate on whatever scraps of information can be culled from the community. Tips largely come from an extremely small percentage of the population.

"They're afraid to come forward because of the reprisal they expect" from the insurgents, said Patrick, of Fairfax Station. "We're in a bit of a rut."

The insurgents have become bolder in the past few weeks, posting signs at schools that say the United States is losing the war and claiming that American forces suffered tens of thousands of casualties in the battle for Fallujah. When a soldier went to remove one of the signs on Tuesday, someone fired a machine gun at him.

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