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'I Don't Think This Place Is Worth Another Soldier's Life'

Barriers in Sadiyah are daubed with graffiti about an Iraqi National Police brigade that used to patrol the area and the Iraqi army brigade that replaced it. U.S. soldiers and residents said the police were complicit in Shiite attacks on Sunnis.
Barriers in Sadiyah are daubed with graffiti about an Iraqi National Police brigade that used to patrol the area and the Iraqi army brigade that replaced it. U.S. soldiers and residents said the police were complicit in Shiite attacks on Sunnis. (Photos By Joshua Partlow -- The Washington Post)

"It's just a slow, somewhat government-supported sectarian cleansing," said Maj. Eric Timmerman, the battalion's operations officer.

The focus of the battalion's efforts in Sadiyah was to develop the Iraqi security forces into an organized, fair and proficient force -- but the American soldiers soon realized this goal was unattainable. The sectarian warfare in Sadiyah was helped along by the Wolf Brigade, a predominantly Shiite unit of the Iraqi National Police that tolerated, and at times encouraged, Mahdi Army attacks against Sunnis, according to U.S. soldiers and residents. The soldiers endured repeated bombings of their convoys within view of police checkpoints. During their time here, they have arrested 70 members of the national police for collaboration in such attacks and other crimes.

The Interior Ministry, which oversees the national police, has said that officials are working hard to root out militiamen from the force and denied that officers have any intention of participating in sectarian violence.

But in one instance about two months ago, the American soldiers heard that the Wolf Brigade planned to help resettle more than 100 Shiite families in abandoned houses in the neighborhood. When platoon leader Lt. Brian Bifulco arrived on the scene, he noticed that "abandoned houses to them meant houses that had Sunnis in them."

"What we later found out is they weren't really moving anyone in, it was a cover for the INP to go in and evict what Sunni families were left there," recalled Bifulco, 23, a West Point graduate from Huntsville, Ala. "We showed up, and there were a bunch of Sunni families just wandering around the streets with their bags, taking up refuge in a couple Sunni mosques in the area."

As the militiamen and insurgents battled it out, the bodies mounted up. U.S. troops said that earlier this year it was common for them to find at least half a dozen corpses scattered on the pavement during their daily patrols.

Militiamen in BMWs rode around the neighborhood with megaphones, demanding that residents evacuate. Mortar rounds launched from nearby Bayaa, a Mahdi Army stronghold, began crashing down regularly in Sadiyah. Three mosques in the neighborhood were rigged with explosives and destroyed.

The national police erected checkpoints outside other mosques and prevented Sunnis from attending services. The U.S. soldiers began facing ever more sophisticated armor-piercing roadside bombs known as EFPs, short for explosively formed penetrators. Some of them were linked in arrays that blasted out as many as 18 heated copper slugs.

Over time, the neighborhood became a battleground that residents fled by the thousands. Hundreds of shops shut down, schools closed, and access to basic services such as electricity, fuel and food deteriorated. "The end state was people left. They felt unsafe," said Timmerman, the operations officer.

"We were so committed to them as a partner we couldn't see it for what it was. In retrospect, I've got to think it was a coordinated effort," Timmerman said. "To this day, I don't think we truly understand how infiltrated or complicit the national police are" with the militias.

Lt. Col. George A. Glaze, the battalion commander, says his soldiers are playing the role of a bouncer caught between brawling customers. Alone, they can restrain the fighters, keep them off balance, but they cannot stop the melee until the house lights come on -- that is, until the Iraqi government steps in.

"They're either going to turn the lights on or we're all going to realize they've moved the switch," he said.


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