U.S. Seeks To Escape Brutal Cycle In Iraqi City

U.S. Army soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division inspect the site of a Dec. 2 car bomb explosion in Samarra.
U.S. Army soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division inspect the site of a Dec. 2 car bomb explosion in Samarra. (By Hameed Rasheed -- Associated Press)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 26, 2005

SAMARRA, Iraq -- On one of his last days in Iraq, Sgt. Dale Evans looked out over the turbulent city from a rooftop tower piled high with sandbags, manning a machine gun. Below him, rows of Bradley Fighting Vehicles stood at the ready. Dusty streets were lined with coiled barbed wire and abandoned houses pockmarked from gunfire -- a protective no-man's land around a base that U.S. commanders describe as their "battleship" in downtown Samarra.

This month, Evans and his company from the 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, will leave Patrol Base Uvanni, beginning a third attempt in as many years by U.S. forces to hand this Sunni city over to Iraqi police. It's a major test for the U.S. military in Iraq, and one U.S. commanders here say they can't afford to fail.

Since 2003, Samarra has come to symbolize the trials and errors of U.S. strategy in Iraq -- a cycle of military offensives, lulls and new waves of lethal insurgent attacks.

In recent months, U.S. forces have resorted to draconian tactics to try to drive insurgents from Samarra and keep them out. In late August, Army engineers used bulldozers to build an eight-foot-high, 6 1/2-mile-long dirt wall around the city, threatening to kill anyone who tried to cross it. Entry into Samarra was limited to three checkpoints. Since then, attacks have fallen sharply, and voter turnout was high for the Dec. 15 national elections.

But no one here is sure the relative calm will last. The military received reports that at least one local election worker was killed last week.

One of the toughest challenges the U.S. military faces in Samarra and other Sunni cities is building local police forces, a top priority for the U.S. command in Iraq in 2006. Homegrown police are vital to fighting an insurgency, military experts agree; they know the tribes, neighborhoods and back alleys. But for the same reason, they and their families are highly vulnerable to insurgent threats. In Samarra, 10 police officers have been assassinated in recent months. About 800 policemen are on the payroll, but only 100 to 150 show up for work, according to their American trainers.

At Patrol Base Uvanni, a three-story school surrounded by concrete barricades, Evans, 35, of San Antonio, said that as the U.S. military recruits police, insurgents are recruiting, too. A day before, the base was rattled by insurgent mortars -- a regular event. Evans's advice for the far smaller contingent of U.S. troops that is coming to Samarra: "Watch your backside. It's kind of rough."

Sixty-five miles north of Baghdad, on a bend of the Tigris River, Samarra was troubled even under the government of Saddam Hussein. Founded in the 9th century as a base for the Abbassid army, the city became best known for its spiral minaret, markets and -- in recent years -- crime. Things grew so bad that Hussein built a bypass around Samarra on Highway 1, Iraq's main north-south artery.

"There were a bunch of ruffians extorting money from travelers," said Capt. Rich Germann, a military intelligence officer with the 3rd Battalion, based in Samarra. Today, the insurgency in Samarra also has a strong criminal element, Germann says.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, successive military offensives brought only short-lived security to the city of 200,000, which repeatedly fell back into the grip of insurgents. Local police were killed, fled or simply walked off the job. Following the last U.S. military sweep into the city, in October 2004, U.S. troops built several small police outposts inside the city using trailers barricaded by cement slabs. Those, too, failed.

"They created a police station in a box," said Maj. Patrick Walsh, the operations officer for the battalion, part of the 3rd Infantry Division. "There were too many out there. Insurgents overran them, and police died."

When Walsh's battalion took over Samarra in February, the city had "zero" police, he said, apart from a sergeant guarding an armory of 20 rifles and small contingents at the hospital and Golden Mosque. Officials said the Iraqi Interior Ministry sent two battalions of Special Police commandos from Baghdad to help quell the violence, and attacks dropped off from dozens each week to less than two a day. But last spring, half the commandos were pulled out on another mission, and violence quickly escalated.

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