Insurgency Leaves U.S. Forces Baffled
For most of the division's three-month extension, Col. Rob Baker's 2nd Brigade Combat Team was responsible for a stretch of towns south of Baghdad that are among the most hostile to the occupation. Over that time, 12 of his soldiers were killed, more than twice the number who died over the previous year.
Foreigners are routinely attacked along the road through Mahmudiyah and Latifiyah, where disaffected Sunni tribes once loyal to Hussein, as well as foreign militants and Shiite rebels, have taken refuge. U.S. troops face ambushes and roadside bombs.
To Baker, building an intelligence network among the different groups -- sometimes working in concert and other times at odds -- has been a revealing challenge. He has given his informants cameras, GPS equipment and espionage training.
"In some cases, they do it out of patriotism," Baker said of the few Iraqis who have worked with him. "Others we put on the payroll."
Community outreach efforts by Baker and his men have been tailored to local sensibilities. In addition to spending $13.5 million on development projects since mid-April, Baker has adopted new, softer rules in dealing with a mostly suspicious community.
He ordered soldiers not to place bags over the heads of detained Iraqis and whenever possible to arrest suspected insurgents outside the view of their wives. Baker also wrote a letter of apology to every detainee wrongly arrested, handed to them upon release.
"Even if one of the people in a house killed one of our soldiers, we'd be back to fix the door we broke down in arresting him the next day," said Baker, 44, of Aberdeen, Md., who bears a passing resemblance to his high-school classmate, former Baltimore Orioles star Cal Ripken Jr.
The outreach, Baker contends, has had some success. His men are defusing more roadside bombs than are exploding, and in recent weeks they have captured a number of important local leaders of the insurgency. But the nature of the resistance often means that new enemies are made as fast as friends.
After a car bomb exploded in Yusifiyah in May, killing eight soldiers, Baker ordered a sweep through the neighborhood. His soldiers searched more than 700 houses over the next 12 hours, leaving, in his words, "a lot of disgruntled citizens."
"We have a big challenge to improve our image," Baker said. "What we are trying to instill in Iraqis is trust and confidence. But it doesn't mean we will win their friendship."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company