Iraqi informers give promising leads, use tips as revenge
BAQOUBA, Iraq -- Notes passed to U.S. patrols, whispers in the ear of an Army interpreter, tips hidden in loaves of bread -- these are essential tools in the hunt for holdouts from Saddam Hussein's regime.
Yet, as the U.S. Army becomes more entrenched in Iraq, soldiers have learned the hard way they were sometimes used as instruments of revenge by feuding Iraqis.
For instance, the 3rd Battalion of the 67th Armor Regiment, 4th Infantry Division detained 12 men this week who an informant identified as members of Saddam's Fedayeen militia planning attacks on soldiers. They were released within hours for lack of evidence. Soldiers now suspect the informant was feuding with the men and used them to get revenge.
It wouldn't be the first time.
"When we first got here, we would get a report, a guy on the street would say, 'This guy and this guy are bad,"' said Capt. Dan Hull, a battalion intelligence officer. "Being naive enough, we would take action on it and all they would have is a couple of AK-47s and the guy who tipped us off is just sitting back laughing."
And even when information seems rock solid, it doesn't necessarily pan out.
On Monday, troops had what appeared a sure thing: Eight men planned to set up firing positions at an abandoned military camp on the outskirts of Baqouba and assassinate a senior regional Iraqi official by firing rocket-propelled grenades at his convoy as it entered the city.
A "credible informer" provided the time the attack was to take place, a map showing the assailants' planned escape route and the number of men involved. Six men were to fire rocket-propelled grenades, while two enforcers wielding Kalashnikov assault rifles stood behind, ensuring the triggermen fired their rounds.
U.S. Army scouts took up position in the rubble of looted buildings at the former military camp, about 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, shortly after 2 a.m. They spent the night waiting to intercept the attackers.
Dogs barked, donkeys were startled by their Humvees and distant, sporadic gunshots broke the silence of the night, but the attack never took place. By 11 a.m., the troops shuffled back to their base a few hundred yards away. Officers asked The Associated Press not to identify the official who was allegedly the target.
"It was either bogus information in the first place or they may have been tipped off. Or, it's possible they saw the checkpoint set up" on the main highway, said Sgt. 1st Class Tracy S. McCarson, a battalion scout. "It's real shaky when you are trying to get information from informants."
But the informants are vital, said Hull, of Kingsport, Tenn. A growing network of Iraqis feeds U.S. forces information about former Baath party members, military officials, weapons caches and fighters planning attacks against coalition targets.
"Without local informants coming up ... we couldn't do our job," Hull said. "This is Vietnam with a desert. We don't know what the bad guys look like ... We don't speak the language, so we rely on someone coming forward."
Many tips have paid off, and since the deaths of Saddam Hussein's sons, Odai and Qusai, last month, each raid triggers a new flurry of information that fuels new operations.
The troops still get misinformation, Hull said. But as they get to know their new surroundings, they're learning to sift through information, back it up with other sources, and better interpret what they are being told.
In the past, U.S. troops have raided houses on the wrong side of a street because they misunderstood directions, Hull said.
Often, the arms and ammunition U.S. troops are looking for are hidden deep inside date groves, palm trees and vineyards that surround Baqouba, or are buried, making it virtually impossible for the Americans to find the caches without local knowledge, Hull said.
Now, former Fedayeen fighters, Iraqi military intelligence officers, taxi drivers and elderly women who are fed up are stepping forward to give U.S. troops information, Hull said.
A U.S. officer on patrol was recently invited to an Iraqi house for tea. When he left, the family gave him a loaf of bread. "Have some more, take this with you," the family insisted, according to Hull. The soldier returned to base, began eating the bread and discovered a sketched map and details giving the location of an Iraqi wanted by coalition forces, Hull said. He declined to elaborate.
The U.S. forces offer cash rewards for information leading to weapons caches or the capture of wanted fugitives. Rewards range from $50 to $25 million -- the bounty the United States offered for a tip leading to the capture of Saddam Hussein.
Others are more easily compensated.
On Friday, a young Iraqi man went to a U.S. base about nine miles northwest of Baqouba, to hand in an RPG and two heavy machine guns. He saw the Americans reading Maxim magazine and drooled over pictures of bikini-clad model Carmen Electra. He traded the weapons for three pictures of the scantily clad beauty, said 2nd Lt. Charles Hills of Newark, Del.
"He took the pictures and said he would bring back some more weapons for the whole magazine," Hills said. Troops now call it their "Girls for Guns Program."
But the informants are risking their lives. One informant in the Baqouba region had his car and house shot up by unknown assailants, Hull said.
"The more bad guys we catch, the more people will want to start talking to us," he said. "The threat of retaliation is leaving, but there's so many bad people still out there that the threat of something happening to them or their family is too great."