In Iraqi Town, Trainees Are Also Suspects

Lt. Aaron Tapalman, 23, argues with Iraqi soldiers about who will deal with a suspected roadside bomb on a highway near northern city of Hawijah.
Lt. Aaron Tapalman, 23, argues with Iraqi soldiers about who will deal with a suspected roadside bomb on a highway near northern city of Hawijah. (By Jonathan Finer -- The Washington Post)
By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 29, 2006

HAWIJAH, Iraq -- After midnight on a bare stretch of highway near this ramshackle town last week, Staff Sgt. Jason Hoover saw what looked like a fishing line strung across the road and ordered his Humvee to a screeching halt.

The cord was connected to an old, Russian artillery shell half-buried in the earthen shoulder and rigged to activate with a firm tug. Hoover traced its path nearly a half-mile though a plowed field, over another highway, and across a canal, where he found four Iraqi infrastructure policemen who were supposed to be guarding an oil pipeline. They said they had no idea what the cord was doing there.

"There's two kinds of Iraqis here, the ones who help us and the ones who shoot us, and there's an awful lot of 'em doing both," said Hoover, 26, of Newark, Ohio. "Is it frustrating? Yes, it's frustrating. But we can't just stop working with them."

The incident is a window on the mixed results of U.S. efforts to train Iraqi forces. American troops trying to tame the restive northern town of Hawijah have done what has proven impossible in many Sunni Arab enclaves: raised a security force from local volunteers. More than 1,500 Iraqi soldiers and 2,000 policemen patrol the area, virtually all of them drawn from the city and the pastoral hamlets that surround it.

But in a town where the local population is hostile to the American presence in Iraq, U.S. soldiers have developed a deep distrust of their Iraqi counterparts following a slew of incidents that suggest the troops they are training are cooperating with their enemies.

The top local Iraqi army commander here was sent to Abu Ghraib prison in November, accused of tipping off insurgents about the routes taken by American convoys, said Lt. Col. Marc Hutson, commander of a Hawijah-based battalion of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division. The city's police chief was also fired and briefly arrested in January for refusing to go after armed groups.

Earlier this month, a U.S. sniper team caught 14 policemen placing roadside bombs in the nearby town of Riyadh. More than 60 other police officers are named on a watch list of suspected insurgent collaborators, according to U.S. military policemen who train them. And last week a raging fire erupted from a sabotaged oil pipeline 50 feet from a police checkpoint, covering the sky with a blanket of black smoke.

A city of about 40,000, Hawijah is nestled in the verdant pastures that straddle the Zab River, about 175 miles north of Baghdad. Its streets are pockmarked with craters from roadside bombs and lined with canals of pungent, green sewage. Graffiti on walls and sidewalks hails the exploits of the group known as Hawijah's Heroes, the local insurgents whose videotaped attacks on U.S. troops are bestsellers in the city's markets.

Its residents, virtually all of them Sunnis, were once ubiquitous in the upper ranks of Saddam Hussein's army and Baath Party. But they have grown frustrated at their decline in status since the U.S. invasion that swept Hussein from power, especially at the hands of ethnic Kurds who now dominate politics in the provincial capital, Kirkuk. U.S. commanders estimate unemployment here at nearly 90 percent.

Anger and malaise have driven a relentless insurgency that is mostly homegrown -- few foreign fighters have been found here -- and has inflicted more than its share of violence on American troops.

Since the 1st Brigade Combat team arrived six months ago to police the Kirkuk region, 11 of its soldiers have been killed. Ten were assigned to the battalion based in Hawijah. At least 64 of the battalion's soldiers have been wounded, nearly 1 in 10 stationed here. And Hutson, the battalion commander, has had his convoy struck by roadside bombs 10 times, including six times on his own Humvee, a remarkable number for a senior officer.

"In some places they hide the fact that they don't like you. They don't hide it here," said Hutson, who stops by his base's medical station periodically for a shot of Toradol to soothe a shoulder injured when his vehicle flipped during one of the attacks.

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