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On Baghdad Patrol, a Vigilant Eye on Iraqi Police
U.S.-Trained Allies Are Often Suspects

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 15, 2006

BAGHDAD -- Second Lt. Will Shields started night patrol for his 2nd Platoon Delta Company with the Baghdad basics: a reminder to speed up instead of slow down if a bomb hits the convoy, and a heads-up on where to stash any victims of killings, sectarian and otherwise.

"We find any dead bodies, we've got three or four body bags," the 23-year-old Shields said. "Hopefully, that'll be enough."

The young troops in his platoon briefly grumbled good-naturedly about whose Humvee always gets stuck hauling the corpses they find of equally young Iraqi men -- stiffened, blood-streaked and open-mouthed. Pretty much every day, U.S. and Iraqi troops are picking up apparent victims of Sunni-Shiite violence on the streets of Baghdad.

Since Feb. 22, when the bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine in Samarra pushed sectarian tensions in Iraq to a new plateau, the U.S. Army units have quietly moved back into some neighborhoods that U.S. commanders had just turned over, with fanfare, to Iraqi security forces. Iraqi leaders asked for the return of the American troops into parts of central Baghdad in March, fearing that efforts to build a stable government would fall apart if they were unable to rein in the Shiite-Sunni killings, said Col. Jeffrey Snow, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division.

After fighting for nearly three years to put down an insurgency waged by Sunni Arabs, the Americans now are also dealing with a bloody Shiite-Sunni power struggle fought largely through intimidation and murder. Part civil war, with open battles in Baghdad's mixed southern neighborhood of Dora and the northern Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah, and part mob-style violence, with bodies being dumped out of cars that then speed away, the struggle plays out mostly beyond the view of U.S. soldiers.

Mystified Americans often are reduced to helping clear away the unidentified Iraqis left sprawled -- their tortured hands clutching the air or wired together behind their backs -- on curbs, sidewalks and garbage-strewn lots.

"It may be making a statement, and it may work for the Iraqi people, but we have a hell of a time figuring out what the statement is," Snow said.

The Americans' problems are compounded by the fact that the same Shiite-led Interior Ministry police forces they are training to protect Iraqis are widely suspected in the killings -- if not as the executioners, then as allies to the Shiite militias blamed for much of the bloodshed.

"No police allowed," a hand-painted banner declares in Adhamiyah, a middle-class quarter of homes and gardens behind high brick walls that is one of the largest Sunni districts in Baghdad. In clashes last month, Adhamiyah homeowners took up guns to fight off what they took to be Iraqi police, possibly backed by Shiite militias, trying to enter the barricaded neighborhood.

In one of the regular meetings that 10th Mountain Division troops have with local leaders in another embattled Sunni neighborhood, Amiriyah, a Sunni businessman told Capt. Ethan Allan: "No one detained by Iraqi police is ever brought back alive."

The man cited widely circulated rumors of killings of men with traditionally Sunni names. At police checkpoints, the businessman told Allan, "they check his ID, they know he is a Sunni, and they take him away and they shoot him."

Fighting Distrust

For the Americans, reform of the police is urgent. Credible Iraqi security forces are essential to Washington's plans to scale back the U.S. military presence here, as political pressure for drawdowns increases back home. "We're trying to work ourselves out of a job," Snow said.

More than a month after moving back into parts of central Baghdad, the 10th Mountain Division in recent weeks has put the mainly Shiite national police force in charge of all or part of two restive Sunni neighborhoods, Khadra and Ghazaliyah. Although there were predictions of disaster, Snow and some residents said the neighborhoods have become more peaceful. More neighborhoods are due to come under national police authority in coming weeks.

Iraqi and American authorities say they would like to see Iraqi police put in charge of much of central Baghdad within months and eventually pull U.S. forces largely outside the capital. To make that possible, each battalion of national police has an American adviser team, steering the Iraqis and keeping an eye on them, U.S. officials said.

The continued U.S. presence, more than anything, appears to reassure wary Sunnis about the Shiite-controlled police forces. In Dora last week, local leaders reached a pact that allows Iraqi security forces to raid places of worship only if U.S. troops are with them. The same deal was later extended to all of Baghdad, Sunni leaders said.

In Amiriyah, Snow's forces are pushing what he called a campaign of building trust by association.

The first weekend in May, about 400 of Snow's soldiers and more than 1,400 Iraqi soldiers, national and local police sealed off the Sunni neighborhood for what one 10th Mountain Division spokesman called a "cordon-and-survey" operation. Nominally about searching some suspected insurgent houses, Operation United Front was more about giving Amiriyah's residents an opportunity see Iraqi police working with U.S. forces, Snow said, and allowing U.S. forces to monitor how the largely Shiite police worked with the Sunni residents.

The Americans also used the operation to gauge the mood among residents and provide a chance for them to talk without fear of betrayal.

"We prefer to be detained by Americans instead of Iraqis," Ali Hassan, a white-haired homeowner, told Col. Bill Burleson in the driveway of Hassan's house after Iraqi police had wordlessly carried out a cursory two-minute search of the villa. "Second choice would be the Iraqi army. Last choice, Iraqi police."

"Why does the U.S. want to decrease the coalition force?" asked Hassan, who wore a white cotton robe with his eyeglasses tucked in the breast pocket. "They should increase it; there are people pounding on these sectarian issues."

American soldiers took on the role of poll-takers for the operation, surveying Sunni households. "In terms of security, it's mixed," Shields told Burleson later in front of another white-fronted, high-walled Sunni house.

"Two or three were positive," Shields said, studying the house-to-house polling results he had jotted down on forms strapped to his clipboard.

Shields put his clipboard down. "All the rest pretty much said they're really scared and they never go outside."

A Roadside Bombing

Shields's patrol the next night started the old-fashioned way: with the sudden snap of a roadside bomb.

Getting out of his Humvee, Shields found one Iraqi dead in a passing open-sided truck, his head flipped onto his back. Four Humvees back from Shields's vehicle, the soldier in the driver's seat nursed a mangled, bleeding foot.

One passenger in the targeted Humvee, 1st Sgt. Larry Philpot, lay sprawled on the ground, eyes closed. At first glance, Shields took him for dead. Another passenger, Staff Sgt. Robert Cortez, limped by, a spear of steel wire jutting out of the flesh of his foot. A brown line rimmed the teeth of the stunned men from the battered Humvee, trademark of the smoke that filled the vehicle.

Shields's men doused the flames, put the pieces of the Iraqi bystander in a body bag, held their fire against another anguished Iraqi rushing to the dead man, called for the Iraqi army, and treated the wounded.

The convoy inched back to its base near Baghdad's airport a little more than an hour after heading out. The 2nd Platoon dropped off their wounded and grabbed a quick meal in the dining hall, frowning in annoyance at the fellow troops around them cheering a boxing match on TV. Then they went back out on patrol, a lightly concussed Philpot among them.

Retrieving the Dead

Hours later, his night of patrols and house searches nearing an end, Shields received a message from the base: Local police had been told of four corpses dumped in the streets and needed help picking them up.

The 2nd Platoon drove to the police station, where the Iraqis, most of them Shiite, were holed up behind watchtowers and blast walls in a heavily Sunni neighborhood. Inside, the policemen milled about in baggy T-shirts and untucked uniforms. They offered Shields bites of a falafel sandwich, and excuses.

They were tired, they were nervous, their cars were broken down, their friends had been killed lately and they were in mourning, the policemen told Shields, shaking their heads and expressing regrets over the impossibility of going out into the Sunni neighborhood at night to retrieve the bodies.

When Shields located the commander, Maj. Ahmed Mohammed, it gradually became clear that the police were scared and wanted the Americans to get the four corpses.

Emotion rippled across Shields's face in a wave of clenching and unclenching muscles.

"You do realize," Shields said, unclamping his mouth and leaning forward over the slight Iraqi police major, "that this is your job?"

"How do you expect Americans to help you when you won't do anything?" Shields asked, before reaching a parking-lot accord that U.S. soldiers would escort a single pickup truck of police to fetch the bodies and come back.

Trolling the streets slowly, following a tip whose source they did not specify, the police found the first man lying face up on the sidewalk, his face covered by a splayed cardboard box, his right hand still clutching a length of thin wire. The police loaded his rigid body into the back of the pickup like a coffee table.

Three more bodies lay under blankets and plastic sheeting by a generator and by one of the felled palm trees that people in neighborhoods across Baghdad now use to barricade streets. Much of the internal organs of one bullet-riddled man stayed behind when police lifted him into the truck. Another had been shot in the right eye. All had been killed where they fell. They lay in pools of blood -- in the case of the man shot in the eye, a copious pothole of blood -- dotted with bullet cartridges.

Murmuring Iraqi policemen surrounded the pickup truck when the convoy returned after midnight to the parking lot, illuminated only by light spilling out of the police station. The Iraqis pointed out signs of torture on the bodies. "Let's go," Shields said.

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