By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 10, 2008
MOSUL, Iraq -- An hour before sunrise, under a star-studded sky, 1st Lt. Michael Baxter's soldiers packed their gear into Bradley Fighting Vehicles, heading out to patrol neighborhoods where fighting insurgents often seems like warring with shadows.
Soldiers took long drags on cigarettes before strapping 40 pounds of armor and gear onto their backs, saying little save for quick back-and-forth on radios. They crammed into the cabins of the tracked, armored vehicles that rattle like flimsy wooden roller-coaster cars and tuned out the sights and sounds of the city.
Mosul, a city in northern Iraq that straddles the Tigris River, has long been a stronghold of Sunni insurgents. When U.S. and Iraqi security forces aggressively fought Sunni extremists in Baghdad and other provinces, insurgents flocked to Mosul in recent months.
The patrols took place on the eve of an offensive against the insurgents that Iraqi officials had vowed to undertake here. The offensive has been dubbed Lion's Roar, and it may cast a spotlight on the readiness and competence of the Iraqi military and police in northern Iraq.
"This is their operation," said Maj. Amanda Emmens-Rossi, a U.S. military spokeswoman in Mosul. "It was conceived and led by the Iraqi military."
U.S. military officials say an offensive here is unlikely to unfold like the 2004 battle of Fallujah, in which U.S. troops fought entrenched insurgent cells with considerable success. And the battle in Mosul is considerably different from recent fights in Baghdad and Basra.
"This is not a Fallujah," said Lt. Col. Christopher Johnson, commander of the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, which is deployed in eastern Mosul. Gathering intelligence on insurgent networks has been daunting, and insurgents have seldom fought security forces face to face. "They pick the time and place."'Why Are You Guys All Lying?'
The rear door of the Bradley popped open vertically, making a loud thump as it hit the pavement. Baxter's men moved stealthily and quickly, accustomed to dodging sniper fire from rooftops. They patrolled without Iraqi soldiers on a recent morning because the Iraqis had not arrived in time.
Their first stop was a house where U.S. soldiers last month had detained men they suspected of having links to insurgents. No one was home. Scattered furniture, bagged blankets and a handful of children's shoes suggested the residents had left in a hurry.
His men moved to an adjacent house, where residents seemed startled as the soldiers burst in, moving quickly from room to room. The residents gathered downstairs. Baxter, 28, asked them when their neighbors had left.
"Three days ago," one of the men volunteered.
A woman wearing a blue dress and a white head scarf leaned against a door frame and eyed the soldiers icily as the men of the house sat on the floor.
Baxter wanted to know what language the neighbors spoke. Someone replied Turkish, but then denied having interacted with the group.
"Have you seen any terrorists?" he asked.
No, one of the men assured him. They told the lieutenant that they had lived in the neighborhood for 30 years.
"Thirty years, and you've never seen any insurgents?" Baxter asked, looking at his interpreter. "Tell him I've been here for five months, and I've seen a lot of terrorists. Why are you guys all lying?"
What about the roadside bombs? Baxter asked. They are placed at night, one man said.
Softening his tone, Baxter said U.S. soldiers are working with Iraqi army and police officials in Mosul to restore security.
That prompted a complaint: One resident told Baxter that Iraqi soldiers recently confiscated his AK-47 assault rifle, which Iraqis are allowed to keep at home. "They put the AK to my head and threatened to shoot," the man said.'Hit-and-Run Tactics'
Back at the small combat outpost, Baxter tore into a packaged military meal and sat at a picnic table surrounded by blast walls. The outpost is frequently attacked, but the last couple of weeks had been unusually quiet.
The first round landed at 11:30 a.m. as Baxter was finishing his meal.
Soldiers reacted quickly. They roused comrades napping in tents and huddled in small cement bunkers.
Five rounds hit in quick succession. None hit the green tents where the soldiers live or the open area where they work out and eat. No one was hurt.
Inside a small trailer in the back of the outpost, Capt. David Sandoval, the company commander, was working the phones and monitoring video streams from security cameras and unmanned aerial vehicles. He was trying to figure out where the mortars were fired from.
The next round of explosions rang out. A U.S. military facility was being attacked with rocket-propelled grenades.
"These guys will throw rounds at you, hit-and-run tactics," Sandoval said. "And then they're gone. It's somewhat frustrating."Sweet Tea and IEDs
Soon, Baxter's men headed out for their second patrol. This time, they canvassed a neighborhood near the outpost. A small group of Iraqi soldiers came along. Residents were polite but circumspect.
A man invited Baxter in. The lieutenant told the man he wanted to find out who placed a bomb that exploded at a nearby school. Two schools in Mosul had been bombed recently. U.S. military officials discovered the schools were targeted because insurgents wrongly believed that soldiers intended to turn them into combat outposts.
"The terrorists don't care if the IEDs hurt children," Baxter said, referring to improvised explosive devices. "The IEDs don't hurt us. We have armor and tanks. They can't hurt us in our vehicles. They only hurt the children."
Baxter asked him whether he ever saw men with masks and guns roaming the streets. No, no, the man assured him. Baxter turned to the man's young son.
"Have you seen men wearing masks?" Baxter asked the boy. "Carrying weapons?"
The boy looked Baxter in the eye and nodded.
The man excused himself and went to make sweet tea for the soldiers.
Other soldiers in Baxter's platoon had been visiting other houses in the neighborhood with Iraqi troops, who moved at a sluggish pace. When U.S. soldiers screened houses for threats, Iraqi army soldiers stood in the way rather than help them make sure the house was safe.
After leaving a house, U.S. soldier drenched in sweat blared out, "What's the penalty for punching an IA officer?"'Like Pulling Teeth'
U.S. military officials in Mosul say the Iraqi army and police have made steady progress in recent months: Iraqi soldiers now operate out of small outposts around the city and have begun conducting their own patrols. Certain police units have brought in good leads to the Americans.
But the reputation of both forces is checkered in Mosul. Residents of the predominantly Sunni city see the army, which in northern Iraq is made up predominantly of Kurds, as an extension of the pesh merga, the Kurdish regional government militia. And they've grown wary of the heavy-handed tactics of the police.
"To get the IA and the IP to go out and do something with us is like pulling teeth," said Staff Sgt. Perry G. Maynor, 24, referring to the Iraqi army and police.
As Baxter headed back to the outpost after finishing the afternoon patrol, he got word that a neighbor had reported that a mortar dud landed in his back yard. The soldiers headed toward the house. U.S. soldiers dismounted from their Bradleys. Iraqi soldiers stayed in their trucks. Baxter waved them over. "Hey, are you guys going to come out and play?" he asked.
The Iraqi soldiers stepped out. The soldiers found the dud. U.S. soldiers said they should call an explosive ordnance team, which is what they normally do in such situations, because duds are prone to explode.
Without fanfare, an Iraqi soldier reached down and grabbed the munition by a fin. Stunned, the Americans ran for cover as the soldier walked back to his truck smiling, the dud dangling from his hand.
Back at the outpost, Baxter rounded up his men for a quick debriefing. Anything to report? he asked.
"The IA suck," a soldier said.
Another chimed in, "And all the people we talked to today are liars."