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Fear Hamstrings Quest for Intelligence in N. Iraq

Jones, an ebullient West Point graduate from Ellicott City, traveled those roads in a convoy of four Stryker assault vehicles this week in what he called "battlefield circulation," a meet-and-greet employing both friendly and frightening tactics. Rolling along a stony road in the lead Stryker, Jones radioed that the silver sedan he had just passed should be stopped. The trailing Strykers blocked the road, and Jones emerged from the back hatch onto a stretch of highway where improvised bombs targeting U.S. convoys have been appearing with greater frequency in recent weeks.

A young Iraqi man in a blue V-neck sweater stepped out of the vehicle, and several U.S. soldiers searched under mats in the trunk, tapped side panels and checked under the hood for weapons. On a stop last week, soldiers found $70,000 in cash tucked into the back seat of a vehicle and arrested the driver, a known money-launderer, troops said. In another car, after finding ski masks and a freshly used sniper rifle, they detained three men inside. Not this day.

"You make us feel safe," the driver of the sedan sputtered to Jones through an interpreter, after the major told him he was looking for information about the insurgency. But, the driver continued, "Your men kill a lot of our sheep and donkeys."

"Our soldiers?" Jones responded. "We've only been here a month. I don't think it's our soldiers."

"They killed some four days ago," the man persisted.

"Well, that shouldn't happen," Jones said. He took the man's name and promised him a fact-finding visit within two days, an obligation that turned out to be the only thing the traffic stop and several others produced.

Later Jones ordered his soldiers to search an orange-and-white taxi, the kind linked to the recent abduction of Iraqi National Guardsmen. But the soldiers found nothing, and the two passengers, forced to kneel during the search, left with no-hard-feelings handshakes from Jones.

"Everyone's answer is . . . 'We don't know anything about the insurgents,' " Jones, 34, told his crew over the Stryker's headsets. "I'm beginning to think this is the Mayberry of Iraq -- not a bad guy around. No one knows any of them."

Jones and the battalion assumed control quickly from the previous unit. Usually, the process would have lasted three weeks and involved exchanging intelligence sources and meeting reliable Iraqi leaders. But the battalion was deployed to Fallujah soon after arriving in Iraq two months ago, and then rushed to Mosul. Jones did not spend any time with his predecessor and inherited only a stack of compact discs, charts and diagrams from the previous unit.

"We're going to school on those now," he said. "Slowly we're getting up to speed."

Casual contact with Iraqis, essential in cultivating intelligence sources, is nearly impossible. Praised by troops for its speed and protection in combat, the eight-wheeled Stryker is a menacing sight. It is encased in grilling that protects it from rocket-propelled grenades, and is mounted with a .50-caliber machine gun. The effect is Mad Max.

The decline in the number of troops across the north has also reduced the amount of battlefield circulation the battalion is able to do, according to its officers. As a commander, McCaffrey said he would welcome three more rifle companies -- about 300 men -- but understands that more troops could also create a backlash among Iraqis displeased by the U.S. presence.

"I'd take more terps than troops, though," said McCaffrey, a lanky, meticulous West Point graduate from Hudson, Ohio, using Army lingo for interpreters. Only five Arabic-speaking interpreters are assigned to the battalion, and one of them is on leave.

Four of the battalion's Strykers recently pulled into Taiba, a ridge-top village of low houses with mud-and-thatch roofs that overlooks the treacherous town of Hammam al-Alil. Chickens clucked in the dirt, but the people went silent. Men shook their heads when Jones asked for information, and only when Sgt. Maj. Mark Taylor pulled lollipops from his pockets did the voices of more than a dozen children fill the afternoon.

"I have onions to sell. Can I get to Mosul?" asked one man in a dark brown dishdasha, his grandson hovering at his side. Jones told him yes, but when the major asked for information about militants, whom he suspects use the town as a lookout, he got no response.

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