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U.S. Troops Uneasy as Rules Shift in Iraq
Americans Must Coordinate With Sometimes Unreliable Local Counterparts

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 12, 2009

BAGHDAD -- First Lt. Ilya Ivanov's initial mission of 2009 began with a crucial, if irksome, task: rousing an Iraqi army sergeant out of bed.

After trekking through dark, trash-filled streets in Sadr City, as the crackle of gunfire and the wails of stray dogs echoed in the distance, the 24-year-old infantry platoon leader arrived at the Iraqi army station one hour before midnight on New Year's Eve. The Iraqi soldier was sleeping placidly on an uneven, thin mattress, a layer of freshly applied moisturizing lotion on his face.

"Tell him we would be honored if he joined us in this mission," Ivanov asked his interpreter to relay.

Tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq started the year calibrating their missions to conform with a new security agreement that demands that American combat troops depend more heavily than ever on their often-bungling Iraqi counterparts. Sometimes that means dragging one or two along on patrol.

American troops, who for years were the ultimate and only unquestioned authority in Iraq, have lost the right to detain Iraqis without warrants and are being asked to coordinate all missions with Iraqi security forces. Soldiering without the robust protections of the U.N. Security Council resolution that expired Dec. 31, in a country where animosity toward U.S. service members runs high, has left some troops feeling uneasy and vulnerable.

"We've got to walk on eggshells," said Spec. Cory Armer, 23, of Lake Charles, La. "I understand you can't go out and shoot everyone and play Rambo. But war is war. We shouldn't be falling under the jurisdiction of a country we're at war with."

U.S. commanders speak of the transition more optimistically, saying it's a necessary step that will force Iraqi officials to take the reins of their country. "It's a transition from a martial-law-type environment to a rule-of-law environment," said Lt. Col. Brian Eifler, commander of the 1-6th Infantry Battalion of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Armored Division. He is based in an outpost in Sadr City.

U.S. commanders lately have sought to dispel the notion that American troops remain at war in Iraq. Since 2003, U.S. service members have had the power of life and death in Iraq; many Iraqis to this day cower at the sight of a convoy of U.S. military armored vehicles.

With meaningful combat operations at a record low, U.S. commanders say, the tens of thousands of troops expected to remain over the next two years will primarily serve in advisory, training and support roles. Rules of engagement -- the guidelines that spell out defensive measures U.S. troops can take -- have been scaled down in recent years. For example, troops are no longer supposed to drive on the wrong side of the road, which they habitually did to avoid setting patterns that make them more prone to roadside bomb attacks. What commanders once called their "area of operation" is now an "operating environment."

And raids are not to be called raids. "We call them cordon and knocks now," Armer said. Echoing the view expressed privately by other soldiers, he added regretfully: "We don't instill fear in them anymore. If you have fear, you have power."

Joint Operation

The Iraqi sergeant was jovial and didn't appear upset at being dragged out of bed. He washed his face and sat smoking a cigarette.

He leaned toward Ivanov and let him in on a secret: He had a bottle of whiskey and he was willing to share it. Ivanov declined politely and let him in on a secret of his own: U.S. Special Forces soldiers were conducting an operation in northern Sadr City, which, in theory, is off-limits to American troops.

"Tonight is an important mission," Ivanov said, using an interpreter to communicate with the sergeant. "I'm not supposed to tell him, but I will because we're friends."

The sergeant stripped out of a fitted green sweat suit, slipped on his uniform, grabbed his rifle, and wrapped a brown-and-white kaffiyeh, a type of head scarf, around his face.

"He doesn't want people seeing him with the Americans," said Rad, Ivanov's interpreter. For that reason, the 26-year-old sergeant, a Kurd, and Ivanov asked that the man's name not be published.

Minutes before midnight, Ivanov and his men, on a joint mission with the lone sergeant, headed out to a street market to meet an informant. Ivanov possessed two sworn statements from witnesses about a man suspected of collaborating with the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia that for years controlled Sadr City. But he wanted more evidence to persuade a judge to sign off on a warrant.

"We'll be patient so we can put him away for a long time," said Ivanov, of Kemah, Tex.

Ivanov, the Iraqi sergeant and the informant met in a dark spot of the market, between two trucks. Ivanov was doing all the talking, while the Iraqi sergeant smoked and wandered around. The conversation was interrupted by bursts of gunfire. Initially sporadic and distant, the shots grew progressively louder and more frequent, fired perhaps from a block or two away. Ivanov and his men looked concerned. Then one soldier looked at his watch.

"It's New Year's, sir," he told Ivanov.

Ivanov didn't want to endanger the informant if people saw them speaking on the street, so they agreed to meet at the man's house later.

The Iraqi sergeant, amused by the celebratory gunfire, asked Ivanov if he could fire a couple of rounds in the air.

No way, Ivanov shot back.

The sergeant laughed, and lit another cigarette.

Sadr City Station

Iraqi government officials last year demanded, as part of the security agreement negotiations, that U.S. troops withdraw from populated areas by July. American military officials have taken some steps toward that end, closing down large bases and outposts occupied only by U.S. troops. But they have no imminent plans to shut down dozens of inner-city bases like the one in Sadr City, which they call a joint security station. A handful of Iraqi officials work alongside Eifler's unit. Like other security stations in Baghdad, it is overwhelmingly populated, and unmistakably controlled, by Americans.

The joint security stations and outposts were built in early 2007, when sectarian violence raged and militias controlled large swaths of Baghdad. They have been crucial in restoring order, jump-starting paralyzed local economies and repairing the country's decrepit infrastructure.

In Sadr City, which the central government has ignored for years, the outpost's leaders became power brokers. They mediated chronic disputes between the Iraqi army and police, employed roughly 1,000 men as unarmed guards and have invested $50 million in reconstruction projects since April.

"We built these places out of the ashes," Eifler said. "After 15 months of putting blood, sweat and tears, they'll be able to walk away knowing that they transitioned Sadr City from what it was then."

The Mahdi Army's sway over the neighborhood has eroded noticeably in recent months, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. But no one is calling it a defunct threat.

"Three months ago, we took this area from the bad guys," said 2nd Lt. Thar Mahdi, one of the Iraqi army officers based at the joint security station. But fighters are "hiding" north of the wall the Americans aren't supposed to cross, he added. The progress of recent months could collapse overnight, he said, if the Americans were to leave the outpost.

"We have a lot of corruption in my army," Mahdi said. "We have bad guys in my army that support the bad guys."

Depending on the Court

U.S. troops this year are being forced to rely on their Iraqi partners more than ever, particularly in detention operations. The American military is in the process of emptying its detention facilities to comply with the new requirement that bars the U.S. government from holding suspected criminals who have not been charged by Iraqi authorities.

"We used to detain people for their intelligence value only," in some cases, said intelligence officer Capt. Dominic Heil, 25, of California's Napa Valley. "We can't do that anymore."

The system requiring warrants is forcing U.S. troops to do shoe-leather detective work. Across Iraq, U.S. military battalions have created prosecution task forces that compile evidence in order to secure warrants. The judges in Sadr City have refused to consider warrant petitions from the Americans, U.S. military officials said, because they were spooked by a recent assassination attempt targeting one of them.

The judges in the Green Zone sign off on warrant requests, but many demand that the Americans transport witnesses to the court so they can meet the witnesses face to face, U.S. officials said. Many witnesses have been reluctant to sign sworn statements or accompany the Americans to court. Because there is no mechanism to compel witnesses to testify, U.S. troops can do little other than plead.

"People say they are afraid [the Mahdi Army] will come and get them when we leave," said 1st Lt. Nathaniel Woodrum, 28, of St. Louis, the officer in charge of the joint operations center at the station in Sadr City.

U.S. military officials said they have been able to secure dozens of warrants in recent weeks and are building strong relationships with judges. But they acknowledged that relying on Iraq's criminal justice system will be challenging. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch last year issued reports that were highly critical of the country's court system. Reports of torture-induced confessions abound, detention facilities are overcrowded, and thousands of inmates have sat behind bars without access to lawyers, awaiting trial.

Ivanov arrived at his informant's house shortly after midnight. The man was sitting on a sofa, leaning over a small space heater, watching "Black Hawk Down," a movie about the 1993 killings of U.S. soldiers during an operation in Mogadishu, Somalia. Ivanov asked the man if his target had weapons at home. The man said he didn't know. Ivanov's men stared blankly at the screen as the last American soldier was beaten to death by fighters.

Having obtained little usable information, Ivanov decided to call it a night. He split up with the Iraqi sergeant and began walking back to the American outpost.

At 1:55 a.m., as the infantrymen were crossing a street where U.S. troops have been targeted with roadside bombs in recent weeks, Rad, the interpreter, saw a red blinking light on a billboard.

"That's an EFP!" he exclaimed, referring to a type of armor-piercing roadside bomb.

The soldiers scurried inside a nearby building. They searched the occupants of a dwelling and took fingerprint and iris scans. Ivanov radioed the station and gave troops there a description of the suspected roadside bomb and his unit's location. The device appeared to have been placed to target the turret of an armored vehicle, a tactic extremists have used in recent months to kill soldiers inside the new, mine-resistant trucks the Pentagon purchased.

Ivanov's men stood behind a wall, using laser beams on their rifles to wave off vehicles headed toward the suspected bomb.

Two hours later, a U.S. bomb squad determined that the device was a dud. Ivanov's men, cold and sleep-deprived, walked in silence back to the outpost, where a brand-new Iraqi flag now flies.

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