For U.S. Troops: Tough Choices
As Clashes Raged, Military Tried to Assist but Not Eclipse Iraqi Forces

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?' "

On Monday night, he and three friends sat in the back of a pickup truck outside the neighborhood's Abu Hanifa mosque, Baghdad's most important Sunni religious center, while Iraqi soldiers, almost all Shiite, stood guard out front. "Having them there is more of an insult than having Americans," Muhammed said, raising his voice to a volume the soldiers could surely hear.

In Baghdad, a city of more than 5 million people, the Iraqi army is now in charge of more than 60 percent of the territory, according to the U.S. military. In sectors east of the Tigris River -- including thorny spots such as Sadr City, home base of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia -- one brigade of fewer than 3,000 U.S. soldiers is responsible for an area once patrolled by more than 10,000 U.S. troops.

U.S. military trainers say the Iraqi army's growth and improvement justify the transition. "They have gotten to the point where they can protect their citizens almost on their own," said Lt. Timothy Bullas, 25, of Pittsburgh, a Military Transition Team officer who works with Iraqi soldiers in northern Baghdad. "The vast majority of them are doing the right thing."

Still, in some potentially troublesome regions, the American military deployed additional forces.

"There was the sense from people at the Iraqi national level that they could use a few more good old U.S. troops," said Lt. Col. Brian Winski, 38, of Milwaukee, commander of the 1-61 Cavalry, whose Alpha Troop was transferred to Baghdad. "They were definitely in the lead, but it helped to have us here because, especially among the Sunnis, there's going to be some apprehension about the quality of the protection they will receive."

On Monday, as a three-day curfew imposed on the city drew to a close, members of the Alpha unit undertook a series of patrols in Adhamiyah and the Shiite enclaves that border it. Packed into four Humvees, the soldiers stopped frequently in crowded main streets and markets to talk to residents about the security situation.

In the Hai al-Banook, a mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood north of Adhamiyah, residents said that for days after the Samarra bombing, members of the Mahdi Army -- identifiable by their black clothing and masks -- blocked all the main roads, setting up checkpoints and spiriting away dozens of people. At least four people were killed, while two Sunni mosques were attacked by gunfire.

"If the Americans were here the first day, none of this would have happened. Maybe they wanted us to suffer," said Hadi Maliki, 45, an Oil Ministry employee seated on a stoop with two friends, watching the American riflemen walk past. "The men wearing black were in charge. No one else."

Others disagreed. "No matter what, it's better if it's our own army than an occupier," said Ahmed Alwan, 51, a local shop owner.

Some U.S. soldiers expressed frustration at the notion that American forces did not do enough. "The problem with their argument is, if we stepped in too much, we'd just get slammed for that, for doing everything," said Lt. Charlie Weaver, 24, of Portland, Maine. "Some of them don't realize that their own army has a lot of advantages over us. For one thing, we don't know all the neighborhoods and where the Sunnis are or the Shiites are."

The argument continued later outside Abu Hanifa mosque, a grand yellow structure lit at dusk by bright white lights. A day earlier, according to Sunni residents standing outside, a soldier on a nearby rooftop had shot an unarmed man in the hand as he approached the mosque talking on a cell phone.

"We feel safe when the Americans are here, otherwise, no, no, no," said Ussam Hamdi, 35, a laborer. "The Iraqi soldiers disrespect Sunnis. They kill you for nothing."

"Tell them they need to get behind the government, get behind the army," Mattingly implored of an interpreter. "That will keep them safe. It takes patience."

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