For U.S. Troops: Tough Choices

An Iraqi soldier guarded a Shiite Muslim mosque in Baghdad Saturday during a three-day curfew imposed after a spate of sectarian violence that killed more than 1,300 Iraqis. A U.S. military spokesman said of local forces' response:
An Iraqi soldier guarded a Shiite Muslim mosque in Baghdad Saturday during a three-day curfew imposed after a spate of sectarian violence that killed more than 1,300 Iraqis. A U.S. military spokesman said of local forces' response: "The violence did not escalate, because of the measures they took." (By Akram Saleh -- Getty Images)
By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

BAGHDAD, Feb. 27 -- Army Lt. Michael Mattingly was leading late-night raids in a city south of Baghdad last week when a new assignment came in via a 2 a.m. radio message.

A revered Shiite Muslim mosque had been bombed the previous morning. Heavily armed Shiite militias were roaming the streets of the Iraqi capital, looking for revenge. By 8 a.m., Mattingly, 23, with 80 members of Alpha Troop, 1st Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, had arrived in Adhamiyah, the heart of Baghdad's Sunni Arab community. Normally, the neighborhood is patrolled by 1,500 Iraqi soldiers and 18 American advisers.

The mission was to prevent reprisal attacks on Sunnis and their mosques. But Mattingly, the troop's executive officer, had another concern.

"We know that if we step in every time things aren't going so well, it doesn't show the Iraqi people they can rely on their army to protect them," he said during a patrol in Baghdad Monday afternoon. "We knew we couldn't just come in and take over. We came in to support them."

The sectarian clashes that followed the destruction of the Askariya shrine in the northern city of Samarra left U.S. commanders in many parts of Iraq -- whose top priority is developing Iraq's police and army to facilitate the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops -- with the same hard choice.

So the response was to patrol more often than normal but to shift only a few small units, such as Mattingly's, into Baghdad from outside the city.

More than 1,300 Iraqis were killed before relative calm returned.

U.S. officials said it could have been much worse. "I think what we have seen showed the capability of the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government in a difficult situation," said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. "The violence did not escalate, because of the measures they took. We had forces standing by if needed. Fortunately, that need wasn't realized."

But following one of the worst spates of sectarian violence in their country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, many Iraqis, even those adamantly opposed to the American presence here, said the United States should have done more.

Mohammed Abdul Hussein, 34, who owns a tobacco store in the Karrada neighborhood, said: "Nothing is guaranteed in this country anymore. You might be killed in any moment. This morning, armed men in Interior Ministry commando uniforms kidnapped a man from his shop in Karrada. He disappeared, and no one knows his fate. Every day is better than the coming day."

Iraq's security forces, many Iraqis contend, are too inexperienced and too heavily Shiite to be effective and fair.

"At least the Americans stand between both sides," said Shaqir Muhammed, 47, a construction worker in Adhamiyah, home to many former soldiers in the army of deposed president Saddam Hussein. "They don't come into our homes in the night and kill people. All week, I was waiting for them. We were saying, 'Where are the Americans?' "


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