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U.S. Troops in Iraq Find Little Leeway
Handling of Threatened Mortar Raid Exemplifies Newly Curtailed Powers

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 20, 2009

BAGHDAD, July 19 -- The tip was as alarming as it was unusual. A Sunni insurgent cell was planning a mortar attack on a large U.S. base adjacent to Baghdad's airport.

A credible informant told U.S. intelligence officials Tuesday morning that several mortars launching from nearby Amiriyah, a quiet neighborhood that had not been a staging ground for rocket or mortar attacks since 2007, would rain down shells on the base that night.

Over the next few days, Capt. Dustin Navarro and his Iraqi army counterpart wrangled over the appropriate response. They met, argued, sparred and compromised. In the end, two things became evident: First, Iraqi and American commanders have markedly different notions of what U.S. troops in Baghdad are entitled to do to protect themselves under a security agreement that went into effect July 1 and that sharply limits U.S. activity in Iraqi cities.

Also clear was that the balance of power, at least in the capital, has tipped, fulfilling a principle Americans have long paid lip service to, and now appear deeply worried about: Iraqis are taking the lead. A year ago, the most likely U.S. response to the tip would have been to dispatch a pair of Apache helicopters to hover over the suspected launch site -- a tactic that would not be used today because it could easily spark a political controversy. The pilots would have needed no more than evidence of "hostile intent" on the ground to send Hellfire missiles roaring down.

A month ago, when U.S. troops could operate openly in the city without permission from the Iraqis, Navarro could have sent soldiers on foot to stealthily take up positions in the neighborhood.

But neither option was on the table last week. Ever since the pullback of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities, the Iraqi government has sharply limited their mobility and operations in urban areas. It has barred Iraqi ground commanders from conducting joint patrols with Americans and has warned that those who give U.S. commanders too much leeway will be punished. U.S. officials contend that the security agreement gives them vast latitude on matters of self-defense, but Iraqis have interpreted those provisions strictly.

The conflicting interpretations of the security agreement, U.S. officials said, have led to numerous standoffs on the ground, including cases in which Iraqi soldiers have prevented American convoys from passing through checkpoints.

Navarro alerted his Iraqi counterpart in the area, Staff Maj. Ali Abdul Hussein Kadhum, about the threat Tuesday afternoon. Kadhum beefed up manpower at checkpoints, flooded the neighborhood with his soldiers and imposed a curfew.

Because of the heavy military presence, the U.S. informant told his handler, the insurgents decided to push back the attack by one day, Navarro said. On Wednesday, Navarro urged Kadhum to consider a more discreet response: They were more likely to catch the insurgents by keeping a low profile and letting them come close to launching the attack.

"Success in my mind was preventing the attack and capturing the individuals with admissible evidence," said Navarro, a cavalry commander from Dallas. "Success in his mind is that there is no attack and no one gets caught. Any attack or any capture would have been perceived as a failure on his part because it means enemy forces and mortar systems were able to get inside his checkpoints."

Navarro was overruled. He told Kadhum he intended to send soldiers into the neighborhood if they perceived an imminent threat, a step U.S. officials contend they can take under the vaguely worded right-to-self-defense provision in the security agreement that regulates their presence in Iraq.

Kadhum said he wouldn't allow it, Navarro said. Any joint mission now had to be approved directly by the prime minister, the Iraqi said.

"The conversation lasted about half an hour," Navarro said. "It got very contentious and heated."

That night, after Kadhum had militarized the area and once more imposed a curfew, Navarro dispatched a small team of soldiers to Amiriyah to monitor the situation. Within 30 minutes, Kadhum approached the patrol leader.

"He said he regretted to inform us that we had to leave Amiriyah," Navarro said. "In his eyes, this was not a preapproved mission."

The Americans did as they were told, Navarro said. He made it clear that he retained the right to swoop into the neighborhood if Americans monitoring video feeds from unmanned aircraft detected an imminent threat. Iraqi troops at the checkpoint better not try to stop them, Navarro warned. Kadhum reiterated that the Americans would not be allowed to enter.

"I understand you have your orders," Kadhum told Navarro, who recounted the conversation later. "But I have my orders, too. You are not allowed to go inside of Amiriyah."

They reached a compromise. Navarro could send a small team to monitor the situation from Kadhum's base, but the Iraqis would do all the fieldwork -- alone. Kadhum agreed to allow a small number of U.S. soldiers on his base that night to monitor reports. Late that night, the tipster provided more detailed information and was able to lead them to a house that he said the insurgents used.

Acting on information collected by the Americans, Kadhum's men searched a home and briefly detained a man that night. Navarro and Kadhum provided different accounts of what happened in the house. Navarro, citing what the informant told Americans later, said Kadhum's men "roughed up" the suspect, told him that he had been identified as an insurgent and warned that he would be blamed for any attack launched in the area. Kadhum said the suspect that his men questioned, at the urging of the Americans, was an unlikely insurgent. He was disabled, walked with a limp and had limited mobility in one hand.

"I cannot say he is innocent, and I cannot say he is a terrorist," Kadhum said. "But we didn't find any evidence."

The man, Kadhum said, told the Iraqis that a fight he had with a neighbor had probably triggered the tip about the mortar attack -- an explanation Kadhum said was plausible. The informant, who Navarro said U.S. officials think was acting in good faith, told his handlers that the insurgents had left the neighborhood.

On Sunday, Navarro and two of his officers visited Kadhum at his base. They wanted to give him more intelligence reports about the would-be mortar attack and have a conversation without the tension of an imminent threat.

Sitting in his spacious office, which has four bird cages, a fishbowl and green fluorescent lights, Kadhum studied the reports Navarro gave him and the two pored over a map.

As they ate kebabs and rice, Kadhum said he had concluded that the tip had been bogus.

"There was no threat," he said, as the Americans ate quietly, at times shaking their heads.

Kadhum said he is pleased that the Americans are sidelined, not because he dislikes them, but because his men have long yearned to be in control.

"I want to test my guys," he said. "When U.S. forces do a joint patrol, we depend 100 percent on them. U.S. forces are leaving someday. We want to test our forces and see if they're ready."

Late Sunday, the informant called back with an update: The insurgents had decided to postpone the attack until they could unmask the mole.

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