U.S. Unit Walks 'A Fine Line' In Iraqi Capital

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 6, 2007

BAGHDAD, Feb. 5 -- The camouflaged American soldiers, weary from hours of struggling to talk with Iraqis during a patrol in eastern Baghdad, laughed with relief after an Iraqi army major's wife met them at her door. The soldiers had no interpreter. She had a master's degree in English translation.

"Do you want to work for the Americans?" asked U.S. Army Lt. Anthony Slamar, 26. "Do you want a job as a translator?"

The woman stepped back into her darkened doorway.

"With you? No. Not with you. Do I want to die?" she said. "I am afraid of you, I'm sorry."

The American and Iraqi plan to pacify the capital rests on the assumption that U.S. troops can win the trust of a wary population by protecting civilians trapped amid sectarian warfare. Each day, U.S. soldiers go door-to-door in the city, searching bedrooms and bathrooms, cabinets and closets, for unauthorized weapons. The operations also offer a chance to cultivate Iraqis as sources of information about the violence entangling their neighborhoods.

But soldiers in a task force from the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, who have patrolled Baghdad for months, say that trying to gain cooperation from Iraqi civilians is a thankless struggle. They say they feel powerless to prevent the city's slide into wider war and that Iraqis seldom open up to them with detailed intelligence. Since the task force of more than 800 soldiers arrived in August, 15 of them have been killed.

Although their commanders argue otherwise, the extent of the challenge led some soldiers to express doubt in interviews that the additional 17,500 American troops slated for Baghdad can make a lasting difference.

"I don't think the infantry or pretty much anyone in the United States Army are properly trained to deal with the guerrilla tactics these guys use against us," said Spec. Jeffrey Steele, 22. "This is a policing thing, you know. It needs more investigation into how these guys work, where they're located. I don't think we can do any better."

At 7:30 a.m. Thursday, under a drizzling rain, Slamar gathered his unit in a circle in a gravel lot on their base to brief them on the day's mission. He passed around a photograph of a tire filled with explosives, a new type of roadside bomb found in the sector they patrol.

"They are filled with rifle ammunition, nails and pieces of iron to increase the intensity of the explosion and increase its fragmentation effect. Lovely," Slamar said. "Make sure you're . . . scanning, okay? Hey, now's not the . . . time to give up, all right? We've still got a long deployment ahead of us. Keep on going."

The five-Humvee convoy rumbled out of the camp gates and drove south to Qahira, a mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood in northeastern Baghdad caught between the Shiite militias in Sadr City to the east and Sunni insurgents in Adhamiyah to the west.

The first goal was to identify potential rooftop sniper positions for a future operation. The troops, armed with M-4 assault rifles, fanned out and soon found a resident, Ahmed, to lead them into a house they wanted to inspect. When the soldiers entered, past plates of orange peels and half-eaten bread in the kitchen, nervous children came down a marble staircase in their pajamas and stood next to their barefoot mother.

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