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U.S. troops welcomed but get little information from Iraqis

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

MOSUL, Iraq -- When Capt. Pat Flynn and his squad knock on doors in Mosul in search of intelligence tips, Iraqis often welcome them inside with candy and tea in tiny glasses. When he asks if they have been intimidated or threatened, they emphatically shake their heads "no."

That's a bad sign.

"Ninety percent of them say it's the safest place in the world to live," said Flynn, 29, a platoon commander in the 172nd Stryker Brigade's 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment. "But we know that's a lie because it's that 10 percent that comes and tells you what's really going on."

That disconnect reflects the task the U.S. Army faces in Mosul, a city that has been hailed as a major success in recent months. Free to move around the city as never before, U.S. troops are realizing that they are no longer the main target.

Commanders with the 172nd Stryker Brigade, whose troops patrol Mosul, believe that since Dec. 15 elections, insurgents have shied away from U.S. soldiers with their heavily armored attack vehicles. In the meantime, they have begun to prey on civilians who are allowed one gun and 50 rounds of ammunition per household.

As evidence, U.S. military officers point to an apparent assassination campaign against neighborhood leaders called "mukhtars" and recent attacks on gas stations and tanker trucks, a tactic they suspect is tied to a government decision to raise fuel prices. The next step may be a wave of assaults against those elected in December and candidates in an upcoming local election.

"We have determined a significant change in who the insurgents are targeting," said Maj. Richard Greene, the executive officer of Flynn's unit. "Up to the elections, they were targeting the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army. They don't want to tangle with us. Now we've noticed a lot of the violence seems to be intimidation of civilians."

The problems in Mosul, where troops mostly escape attack but civilians do not, exemplify a larger issue in Iraq. And how the Americans handle Iraq's third-biggest city could point the way for the rest of the country, because of Mosul's size and ethnic complexity -- a mixture of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. That makeup means some refer to Mosul as a microcosm for the entire country.

President Bush, in a speech in December, said residents in Mosul and the southern city of Najaf "are seeing tangible progress in their lives." Indeed, the city had come a long way from the previous year, when police fled their posts and U.S. troops fought gunbattles with the insurgents head-on.

U.S. troops are free to park their heavily armored Stryker vehicles at intersections and dismount, walking through the city's winding streets without fear of major assault.

But what's clear is that Iraqis believe the insurgents are keeping a close eye on them, and frequently plead with U.S. troops for more security. Soldiers say that when they visit a house, the family may sometimes ask them to fake a shouting match as they leave, or, when they emerge from the house, put them up against a wall and search them in a mock show of force.

"They will invite us into their homes, give us tea, and say nothing, and that could mean to us that they're being watched or that they're being intimidated," Greene said. "They may not invite us into their home, which is a clear indication that we're not welcome there and there's probably a reason for it."

The knowledge that the insurgents are out there has essentially led the Americans to compete for civilians' loyalty while they can. The few hundred troops actually on patrol in the city at any one time spend much of their day going house to house in search of information about the insurgents they rarely see face to face anymore.

Interviews by U.S. troops are far different from the raids that gained infamy early in the war, when soldiers kicked down doors and handcuffed men in the dust outside. Now, soldiers make a point of removing their helmets and sunglasses, and putting their weapons on the floor.

While the training of Iraqi army and police units continues, American soldiers have also tried to bolster the Iraqi authority's image here -- in one case, instructing Iraqi commanders to deliver supplies to schools in a public relations campaign.

"They've realized we're not going to be here forever," Flynn said. "It's a waiting game, and they can wait us out."

During one recent visit after dark, soldiers sat sipping coffee with a man whom they nicknamed Joseph, who had relayed information in the past about insurgents launching mortars and firing shots. He complained of kidney stones and heartburn, pointing to his stomach.

"My medic can get you something for the stomach," said Sgt. Adam Smith. "So when we come back, I'll have him bring it. I wish there was more I could do."


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