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Iraqi Unit Brings Calm To a Rebel Stronghold

"They have done what our high-technology tanks, Bradleys and soldiers haven't done," he said, "and that's win the war on Haifa Street."

Old Habits Survive

North of Haifa Street, another Iraqi army battalion, the 305th, is attempting to set up a vehicle checkpoint. Hopping out of his brown Nissan pickup truck, Lt. Salwan Abdul Amil, the platoon leader, sets up parallel roadblocks in a way that puts his men at direct risk from halted cars.


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)

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An American adviser, Sgt. 1st Class Joe Williams, pulls Abdul Amil aside. "You don't want all the cars stopped where your security crew is," he suggests. "You got to get a green zone to protect your guys."

Later, Williams sized up the error. "That's pretty basic," said the Odenton, Md., native. "I'd give them probably a B."

Unlike the 302nd Battalion, the 305th is not scheduled to take charge of a sector of Baghdad until June. Although its 920 soldiers are motivated and have mastered some basic skills, the checkpoint incident showed how far they have to go, U.S. and Iraqi officers say.

Even in better units such as the 302nd, old habits survive from the days when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, such as nepotism, despotic rule by officers and routine beating of captives. Iraqi soldiers lack restraint in firing weapons, so much so that U.S. officers have given the errant barrages of gunfire a nickname: "the death bloom," which they consider one of the biggest dangers of working with Iraqi forces.

"Their marksmanship is horrendous," said Staff Sgt. Mark Scott of Syracuse, N.Y., a trainer with the 305th. "They'll let a whole magazine fly as soon as they come into contact. One guy shoots, and within five seconds they've all expended all their ammo. One guy looks at the other and says, 'What are we shooting at?' "

For their part, Iraqi soldiers complain that their unarmored trucks and faulty rifles leave them outgunned by insurgents. The 305th has lost dozens of soldiers and undergone 50 percent turnover since it was set up in late 2003. The Iraqi government has no logistics network to provide basic supplies, equipment, ammunition and weapons to Iraqi forces, who frequently rely on the U.S. military for such supplies.

"We are weak when we go outside," said 1st Lt. Saad Wais, 29, a company officer with the 305th. "We don't have armored vehicles, so the explosives will kill us. And we have bad weapons. The AKs shoot 10 rounds and stop."

Many Iraqi soldiers hide their faces with sunglasses and masks while on patrol, for fear of being identified and killed later. But one recently expressed a quiet determination not to give up. "On my flak vest, I write that there is nothing to fear except Allah," Sgt. Hashan Rahma said in a note to a reporter. "Even if it costs our life, we will fight those who bring a bad name for Islam into the world. God help us."

'These Guys Get It'

With a 9mm Glock pistol strapped to his leg and a tan cap tied up jauntily at the brim, 1st Lt. Jassem Abdallah Hameed of the 302nd leads his platoon on a morning patrol through Haifa. The route covers some of Haifa's most active insurgent neighborhoods, but Hameed says he feels comfortable leaving behind his helmet and rifle.

"Before, they always threw grenades at us here," the 36-year-old former Iraqi special forces member says, pointing to a traffic circle. "We couldn't come down this street unless we brought a whole company. Now, it's one platoon!"

Hameed strides down the middle of the trash-strewn road, using hand signals to direct his men with very few words. When he raises his fist, they freeze. When he waves his arms apart, they spread out. On wide roads, he instructs them to zigzag. Known for setting a fast pace, he urges his men on by shouting in English: "Move! Move!"

When the patrol stops at a hospital to look for anyone with gunshot wounds -- considered possible insurgents -- soldiers automatically take up positions in an adjacent building. They peer around, alert for anything suspicious.


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