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.
American commanders have long maintained that strengthening Iraq's police and army is the key to securing the country and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces. The performance of the Hawijah-based troops has improved in recent months to the point where they occasionally lead operations to confront insurgents and no longer flee firefights the way they once did, said the U.S. officers who train them. The best evidence, the argument goes, is that the insurgents now turn their guns on their fellow Iraqis.
"It sounds strange, but more police have been killed lately, which means some of them are finally doing their job," one U.S. officer here said.
But efforts to transfer more responsibility to the Iraqi forces are mired in doubts about their loyalties.
"It's like the Chicago police department in the 1920s, so infested with mobsters that even the good ones are corrupt because they don't want to get killed," said Staff Sgt. Ryan Horton, 28, a military policeman from Dallas who works closely with the Iraqi police. "They all live in the community with the terrorists, and so do their families. They are very, very intimidated."
Horton said he gives Iraqi officers just minutes' notice when bringing them on a mission, and never tells them exactly where they will be going to prevent them from tipping off insurgents. "I've seen them laughing when we come back in with a vehicle destroyed by a bomb," he said. "I've seen them stand 10 feet away and do nothing but watch when we are in the middle of a firefight."
Over sweet tea in a grubby police station at the center of Hawijah last week, the station commander, Maj. Ghazey Ahmed Khalif, assured Horton and his team that things were quiet in town that day. But when Horton asked some Iraqi officers to accompany him on a drive through town, Khalif discreetly whispered something into a translator's ear.
"All of a sudden he remembers he got a tip about an IED," said Horton, using the military acronym for improvised explosive device, or roadside bomb. "If we hadn't asked his guys to come, put them at risk, no way he tells us about that."
Soldiers working with the Iraqi army here report similar problems. Iraqi soldiers have been reprimanded for selling their government-issued ammunition in local gun markets and for hocking their boots, only to turn up for duty in leather loafers.
Before a highway patrol to search for roadside bombs last week, an Iraqi unit accompanying U.S. soldiers refused to ride in American Humvees, which provide far better protection from bomb attacks than the unarmored pickup trucks normally used by Iraqi forces.
Shaking his head and staring at the ground, Sgt. Ghazi Esa Muhammad, 25, explained that a local cleric had decreed that Iraqis killed in an "occupier vehicle" would not go to heaven.
"Tell your guys, if they refuse to ride in the Humvees, they will go to jail for 10 days. It's not a choice," said Lt. Aaron Tapalman, 23, the patrol leader. "They want to be able to claim they are not associated with us," said Tapalman, after the Iraqi sergeant relented and told his men to mount up.
About an hour later, the patrol came across a white bag on the roadside that Tapalman suspected might contain a bomb. When he asked some Iraqi soldiers to move it off the road, their commander balked, saying it wasn't his job.
"It is your job to protect the people," Tapalman said, increasingly exasperated. "I can go and move it myself, and you know what? I will, but don't you think your people should see you doing that kind of stuff. Someday we're not going to be here anymore."
The Iraqi soldier declined again, apologetically, and drove away.
While maintaining that their troops are improving, Iraqi commanders acknowledge that their charges' loyalties are often divided at best.
"There is sensitivity among the soldiers about the occupation," said Lt. Col. Abdul Rahman Sekran, 42, the executive officer of the 1st battalion, 4th Iraqi Army division. Located just east of Hawijah, its orchard-ringed compound once belonged to Hussein's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majeed, dubbed "Chemical Ali" for ordering gas attacks that killed thousands of Kurds in the 1980s.
"Remember," Sekran explained when asked about accusations that some of his men undermine efforts to provide security, "there is another organization working the streets, the terrorists, giving them bad information."
Ill will runs in both directions. After U.S. forces detained some police a few weeks ago, other officers posted a large white banner on a well-traveled bridge downtown. Written in both Arabic and English, the English one read: "Al-Hawijah police reject to accompany the coalition forces in the mutual patrol in Al-Hawijah becaus police is existed to protect people and not to protect coalition soldiers."
Local political leaders have also bridled at American calls for cooperation in improving the security situation. Hawijah-area representatives recently launched a boycott of the provincial council in Kirkuk.
Addressing a roomful of mayors and council members last week, Col. David R. Gray, the 1st Brigade Combat Team commander, announced he had agreed to fund 15 reconstruction projects worth nearly $3 million. But establishing a secure enough environment to execute them, he said, was partly the residents' responsibility.
"Many of you told me the attacks are the work of foreigners," said Gray, 48, of Herscher, Ill. "Gentlemen, my conclusion is that the problem is not foreigners, but a problem within your tribes. And if the problem is within your tribes, the solution lies with all of you in this room."
When the colonel quickly left for another meeting, the room erupted in anger.
"Always, the Arabs are accused of being part of the terrorists," said Sami al-Assi, a local tribal leader, tapping his finger against the podium for emphasis as his colleagues nodded their approval.
"All you do is come over to our area and arrest the police and soldiers," said Ruhan Sayyid, the meeting's chairman. "How are they going to fight the insurgents if that's how they are treated?" Hutson, serving as Gray's proxy after his departure, warned, "If I have a report of a policeman who's in the wrong line of work, who's acting as an insurgent, I will arrest him."
Gray and Hutson said they had considered bringing to Hawijah an Iraqi army battalion from Kirkuk, where security forces are composed primarily of Kurds. The move, they acknowledge, would be intensely provocative for a population already furious about Kurds' intention to bring more territory under the control of their semiautonomous northern region.
"It would be a disaster," said Sekran, the Iraqi army battalion executive officer. "The population would refuse this with violence, and it would cause a civil war."
Other U.S. officers said a better path is withdrawing all outside troops and leaving the city to the local security forces. "Sometimes I think we just give them something to shoot at. When we leave, all that might just go away," Tapalman said. "But then they'd be in charge."