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Iraqi Unit Brings Calm To a Rebel Stronghold

Perhaps the most critical aspect of the U.S. strategy to transfer responsibility to Iraqi forces is to nurture capable leaders such as Hameed and provide the resources necessary for them to succeed.

To refine the 302nd's capabilities, a team of U.S. Special Forces soldiers is training a 30-man strike platoon in undercover intelligence gathering, reconnaissance and targeting, and making raids. Twelve other 302nd soldiers are gaining specialized intelligence training north of Baghdad.

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)

U.S. advisers assigned to the 302nd say they view Hameed and other capable Iraqi officers as peers, trusting them with their lives on a daily basis.

"The first patrol I went on, I was pretty skeptical," said Sgt. 1st Class James Braet, who joined the Iraqis accompanied only by a radio man and a medic. But when two grenades came flying over a wall, Braet was impressed at the Iraqi soldiers' reaction. "They put up a sniper and sent out probing patrols. I was kind of hunkered down watching them and I'm like, yes, these guys get it."

Preventing Abuses

Behind the 302nd Battalion headquarters on Haifa Street is a 30-by-30-foot white metal cage. Forty-two male detainees sit shoulder to shoulder in three sections of the makeshift jail, many captured and interrogated as a result of the 302nd's aggressive raids.

While some had arrived the day before, others have languished for as long as two months, according to the battalion intelligence chief. "We need a bigger jail, with better security," he said.

The overflowing holding pen is symptomatic of a lack of supervision and support from Iraq's Defense Ministry, according to U.S. military advisers and officers. "Direction from the Ministry of Defense is virtually absent," says Col. Joseph P. DiSalvo, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade.

As Iraqi units take charge, there is growing concern among U.S. officers that the lack of civilian oversight of Iraqi security forces will allow for abuse.

"We can train all the combat units, but we can't train all the structure that keeps them under civilian control," said Col. Edward C. Cardon, commander of the 3rd Infantry's 4th Brigade, which is partnered with the 302nd.

Indeed, as they round up hundreds of detainees, Iraqi forces, including the 302nd, have severely beaten some captives, U.S. officers said. "They were torturing people and breaking their bones," said one U.S. officer in Baghdad, who did not specify the Iraqi unit involved. "I said, 'What do you think you're doing?' "

Wais, the lieutenant with the 305th, acknowledged that "sometimes we do bad things like beat people, and they correct us."

But as U.S. forces shift control to Iraqis, the advisers' ability to curb abuses is growing more limited. Ballanco said he has witnessed beatings by members of the 3o2nd. "We always call them on it immediately," he said, "but if they say, 'This is our sector, back off,' we say, 'Okay.' "

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