BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi platoon slips in darkness down a path from an abandoned rail yard to a cemetery in Haifa, a Baghdad district long notorious for insurgent ambushes.
Wearing mismatched uniforms and carrying old Kalashnikov assault rifles, the soldiers step nimbly along a street that runs between a clutter of stone tombs. Watching for attackers down every alley, they halt approaching cars and scan rooftops with flashlights. A beam of light sweeping over one wall reveals some unusual but welcome Arabic graffiti: "The ING is strong."
A platoon of the Iraqi army's 302nd Battalion patrols Baghdad's Haifa district, where the battalion formally took charge early this year.
(Photos Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)
It's a reputation the soldiers of the 302nd Battalion seek to solidify in Haifa, now their turf. A former Iraqi National Guard (ING) unit that U.S. officers consider one of the most capable units in the Iraqi army, the 302nd formally took charge early this year in Haifa, part of a growing swath of central Baghdad being turned over to Iraqi forces.
The goal is to have an entire Iraqi division, about 10,000 troops, in charge of most of downtown by this fall, U.S. commanders say. "By October, we would have at least two divisions in Baghdad, one Iraqi and one U.S.," said Maj. Gen. William Webster, commander of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, stationed in the capital. Some U.S. military leaders expect the gradual handover to allow a reduction of U.S. troops in Iraq beginning next year.
Haifa offers a window on the benefits and risks of the U.S. push to shift responsibility for security to Iraqi forces.
In 15 months of street fighting here, the 1,000-man battalion has lost 26 men to assassinations, suicide bombings and block-by-block combat, a higher fatality rate than the U.S. military has suffered here or in all of Iraq. But in recent weeks, attacks have fallen off sharply. Insurgents still sometimes throw grenades down narrow alleys at the soldiers or fire a few rounds from an AK-47 assault rifle and run. But they're attempting little else here, at least for now.
One recent night, as the pop of gunfire sounded in the distance, the Iraqi soldiers maneuvered through Haifa's dirt alleys, rutted and running with sewage. Breaking a locked gate, they entered an apartment building and escorted a sniper team out of a covert position overlooking Haifa Street, the heart of the district.
As the night wore on, the men grew lax, some smoking cigarettes and others talking on cell phones. When a tip led them to a suspected insurgent, the soldiers swarmed around him instead of maintaining their positions, a potentially dangerous lapse.
Still, what the Iraqi soldiers sometimes lack in discipline, they make up for in street savvy, U.S. advisers say. Compared with U.S. troops, they can more easily spot an out-of-place bomb wire, detect nuances in dress and accent, or sense a subtle change in mood that alerts them to their enemy.
"They spotted a wire that led to a 155mm round" that U.S. forces missed, said Capt. Mark McClellan as he patrolled with Iraqi soldiers on the night mission. Not only do the Iraqis see telltale signs of bombs in the cluttered landscape but they often audaciously run over, grab the wires and pull them out, U.S. officers say.
Public support for the Iraqis seems to be building, judging by the number of phone calls and handwritten notes from residents that have led them to suspected attackers and large weapons caches. This month, a resident who had watched Iraqi soldiers hand out soccer balls the day before provided a tip that produced a huge haul of mortars and other munitions.
"Before, the Iraqi people hated us because they said we were just helping the Americans. But when they see us protecting Iraqi citizens, they change their mind," the 302nd Battalion's executive officer, Col. Alaa Talib Moshin, said at his headquarters. "Now, every day I get more information on the terrorists."
As insurgents find it harder to place weapons and stage attacks in the neighborhood, they are moving out, he said. "Haifa Street is very quiet."
Capt. Edward Ballanco goes further. Ballanco, who led a U.S. tank company into Baghdad two years ago, now heads a team of American advisers supporting the 302nd. He is one of thousands of U.S. troops now embedded in teams of 25 to 75 with Iraqi battalions to help them build staff and leadership skills and gain quick access to U.S. air and ground backup.