Informants Decide Fate of Iraqi Detainees

An Iraqi informant in Tall Afar uses a thumbs down to signal that a detainee should be released.
An Iraqi informant in Tall Afar uses a thumbs down to signal that a detainee should be released. (By Jonathan Finer -- The Washington Post)
By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 13, 2005

TALL AFAR, Iraq, Sept. 12 -- A masked teenager in an Iraqi army uniform walked slowly through a crowd of 400 detainees captured Monday, studying each face and rendering his verdict with a simple hand gesture, like a Roman emperor deciding the fate of gladiators.

A thumb pointed down meant the suspect was not thought to be an insurgent and would be released by U.S. soldiers. A thumb pointed up meant a man would be removed from the concertina wire-encased pen, handcuffed with tape or plastic ties and taken by truck to a military base to be interrogated.

"Another bad guy right here," an American interpreter shouted when the masked Iraqi singled out a man in a yellow dishdasha , or traditional gown, who shook his head and protested in Turkish. A captive who was spared exhaled with relief and placed his hand on his heart.

This is how the 10-day-old invasion of Tall Afar unfolded Monday. After two days of relatively uneventful patrols in the abandoned neighborhood of Sarai, where commanders had expected insurgents to be massed for a fight, U.S. and Iraqi forces turned north in the morning, to neighborhoods they had already cleared, and found hundreds of men who appeared to be of military age and fighters believed to have slipped through their cordons.

Eventually, 52 men were placed in the open backs of flatbed trucks bound for Camp Sykes, about seven miles south of this northwestern city. During the attack on insurgents here -- the largest urban assault in Iraq since the siege of Fallujah in November -- the only significant clashes came in the early days, when thousands of American and Iraqi troops stormed the city and U.S. jets waged a relentless bombing campaign.

Since then, the fighters who controlled much of Tall Afar for nearly a year have either fled or laid down their arms to blend among the civilian population, commanders here said. Instead of a Fallujah-style assault, the invasion has largely become a citywide roundup designed to prevent insurgents from lying low to fight another day.

Soldiers with little training relevant to the mission have been forced into roles more traditionally assigned to police: gathering evidence, interrogating witnesses and suspects, and following up on leads. In searching almost every house in the city's most violent neighborhoods, they have detained hundreds of young men, some because they possessed weapons or insurgent literature, but others solely on the hearsay of local informants often called "sources" by U.S. troops.

Many of the informants are residents of this city of more than 200,000 who now serve in the Iraqi army. Others had family members who were killed by the insurgents and said they wanted to help purge them from their neighborhoods. The U.S. soldiers who work with them acknowledge knowing little about their backgrounds and motives -- or even their names -- and admit that their reliability varies widely. Some of those named by sources have in turn said their accusers were carrying out tribal or sectarian vendettas, a charge they also level at Iraqi security forces.

The informants "are the first important step in the process of weeding these people out," said Capt. Alan Blackburn, commander of Eagle Troop of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which has led the invasion of Tall Afar. "You obviously can't just go by what they say because they make plenty of mistakes, but since we don't know these places as well as they do, it helps to have them around."

U.S. forces invaded Tall Afar one year ago, then withdrew as insurgents returned and reestablished control over the city. On Monday, Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of the country's main insurgent group, al Qaeda in Iraq, posted a statement on the Internet saying U.S. forces were "repeating their moves against Tall Afar after failing many times to break into it, as its lions many times forced them to taste humiliation, and the bitterness of defeat."

As in the past several days, Iraqi soldiers drawn primarily from the Kurdish pesh merga militia led the operation, joined as always by U.S. Special Operations soldiers, distinctive with their unkempt hair and facial stubble.

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