Fighting the Insurgency One Unit's Aggressive Approach

'It Looked Weird and Felt Wrong'

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By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 24, 2006

From its first days in Iraq in April 2003, the Army's 4th Infantry Division made an impression on soldiers from other units -- the wrong one.

"We slowly drove past 4th Infantry guys looking mean and ugly," recalled Sgt. Kayla Williams, then a military intelligence specialist in the 101st Airborne. "They stood on top of their trucks, their weapons pointed directly at civilians. . . . What could these locals possibly have done? Why was this intimidation necessary? No one explained anything, but it looked weird and felt wrong."

Today, the 4th Infantry and its commander, Maj. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, are best remembered for capturing former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, one of the high points of the U.S. occupation. But in the late summer of 2003, as senior U.S. commanders tried to counter the growing insurgency with indiscriminate cordon-and-sweep operations, the 4th Infantry was known for aggressive tactics that may have appeared to pacify the northern Sunni Triangle in the short term but that, according to numerous Army internal reports and interviews with military commanders, alienated large parts of the population.

The unit, a heavy armored division despite its name, was known for "grabbing whole villages, because combat soldiers [were] unable to figure out who was of value and who was not," according to a subsequent investigation of the 4th Infantry Division's detainee operations by the Army inspector general's office. Its indiscriminate detention of Iraqis filled Abu Ghraib prison, swamped the U.S. interrogation system and overwhelmed the U.S. soldiers guarding the prison.

Lt. Col. David Poirier, who commanded a military police battalion attached to the 4th Infantry Division and was based in Tikrit from June 2003 to March 2004, said the division's approach was indiscriminate. "With the brigade and battalion commanders, it became a philosophy: 'Round up all the military-age males, because we don't know who's good or bad.' " Col. Alan King, a civil affairs officer working at the Coalition Provisional Authority, had a similar impression of the 4th Infantry's approach. "Every male from 16 to 60" that the 4th Infantry could catch was detained, he said. "And when they got out, they were supporters of the insurgency."

The unit's tactics were no accident, given its commanding general, according to his critics. "Odierno, he hammered everyone," said Joseph K. Kellogg Jr., a retired Army general who was at Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led occupation agency.

But that criticism hasn't hurt Odierno's subsequent career. When he returned to the United States in mid-2004, Odierno was promoted to be the military assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He recently took command over III Corps at Fort Hood, Tex., and is scheduled at the end of this year to return to Iraq to become the No. 2 U.S. commander there, overseeing the day-to-day operations of U.S. forces.

In an interview, Odierno mounted a strenuous defense of his division's performance, and said any implication that "all we did was kill people wantonly and abuse prisoners -- in my opinion, that's totally false."

Odierno said that he had made detainee operations a major focus of his command after it became clear in the summer of 2003 that the division would have to hold prisoners. "That's what bothers me about this" discussion of the 4th Infantry. "I spent so much time on this. It was important to me that we did this right."

Two years ago at a meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army, Odierno explained that his aggressive tactics were born of experience. "We'd go in, do a raid on a house, and we wouldn't search any of the families, and as we were leaving, they would hand weapons from under their dresses to their men, who would shoot at us."

So, he said, "yeah, initially, we probably made some mistakes." But, he continued, "we adapted quickly."

First Combat in Decades

Unlike most Army divisions, the 4th Infantry hadn't been deployed for decades, missing out on Panama, the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. At its home base of Fort Hood, Tex., it sometimes was mocked as the second team, taking a back seat to its neighbor, the 1st Cavalry Division.


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