TAJI, Iraq—Capt. Carson Green walked slowly down the highway, simmering in the sun, looking for signs of a roadside bombing that had ripped both feet off an American soldier.
Green thought that if he could find the site of the bombing, he could figure out where witnesses might have been standing—at roadside groceries, houses, taxi stands—and, he hoped, "flip" them into giving up the names of insurgents in the area.
But after a half-hour of going up and down the road, Green couldn't tell the new bomb craters from the old ones. The heat had climbed above 110 degrees with no hint of wind, and the asphalt, stretching toward the horizon, felt like a stovetop.
Frustrated, Green muttered an obscenity. "Let's go," he said.
Green, 26, has commanded Alpha Company of the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team since April, when a bomb killed his predecessor.
Green, from Cumby, Texas, is on the front lines of a battle that's forced the U.S. Army to rethink the way it's fighting the war here. Most officers agree that victory in Iraq will be determined not by generals or weapons systems, but by captains like Green who decide how to fight an oft-unseen enemy in a land where they don't speak the language or know whom to trust.
Four days spent with Green recently showed just how difficult that battle is. At every turn Green confronted situations that seemed to defy solution. Police were uncooperative, if not infiltrated, informants were coy, if not dishonest, and death or crippling injury was just a misstep away.
In Green's area, between the Shiite neighborhoods of northern Baghdad and the outlying Sunni provinces, Sunni insurgents and foreign terrorists are only part of the battle. Shiite police abduct and kill innocent Sunnis at checkpoints. Sunni fighters stop carloads of Shiite laborers and shoot them or cart them off for torture. Bodies turn up every day on the side of the road or floating face down in the Tigris River.
"I think, unfortunately, there will be a civil war," Green said.
Green decided early in his command that the best way to pacify the insurgency and the militias was to rely on informants more than on raids, to be as much a detective as a soldier. That approach reflects an overall shift in U.S. strategy. Large cordon-and-search operations are out of favor. There's an emphasis on not creating more insurgents by kicking in the wrong door or shooting the wrong man.
"You can't fight a counterinsurgency by sweeping an area. You've got to collect intelligence on a specific cell leader," said Green, who has a slightly pug nose and a sharp jaw line that tenses when he's thinking. "These big sweeps and roadblocks, you don't catch anybody doing that."
But it's also hard, he said, to catch anyone when you don't know who's telling the truth and who isn't, who's on your side, and who isn't.
Green's days and nights in Iraq are shadowed by the death of the man who came before him.
Capt. Ian Weikel was riding in a patrol on April 18, crossing a bridge north of Baghdad, when a roadside bomb erupted. Shrapnel tore into Weikel's Humvee. The soldiers he commanded rushed to the vehicle and saw their captain slumped over, blood pouring from his head.
Weikel, 31, was from Colorado Springs, Colo. In 1993, his hometown newspaper had named him as one of the area's "Best and Brightest" teens. He was a star quarterback and senior class president at Fountain-Ft. Carson High School. He'd gone on to West Point and had become a father just months before his second deployment to Iraq. He was, his family told the Colorado Springs Gazette, "a man who loved his Lord, his family, his soldiers and his country."
At the time of Weikel's death, Green was a young staff officer waiting for a company command spot to open.
Green seems almost obsessed with finding Weikel's killer. As he pieces together bits of information about the insurgency, and the Shiite militias it wars with, Green strains to find leads, pushing every informant for something, anything, that could lead to the insurgent who set off the bomb that killed Weikel. The informants, knowing the value of such a tip, often dangle the possibility that they could help Green solve the case.
An informant recently led Green to a man who lived near the bridge where Weikel was killed. The Iraqi said in an initial interview that he had information about the insurgent cell that was behind the bombing. Green was planning to bring him into the base and question him for more details.
After searching for the bombing site that morning, Green and his men drove to the Taji police station to meet a high-ranking Iraqi officer. For three months, the officer has been giving Green information not only on Sunni insurgents, but also on Shiite militia members operating in the police force.
The informant—a Shiite who asked that his name not be used—has told Green several times that his police chief is a member of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. Green said he wouldn't be surprised if that were true.
Walking into the informant's office, Green shook hands and quickly got to the point: "There was a bomb this morning. Who did it?"
The informant gave three names—one of them Sunni and two of them Shiite.
Green raised his eyebrows. "Shiites?" he asked. "Why are they working together?"
"Money," came the answer.
At the end of the conversation—in which the informant gave long and often contradictory accounts about local insurgent cells—Green asked the officer if everything he'd told him was true.
"Maybe true, maybe false," the officer said, giggling.
In the Humvee outside, Green was asked how much he trusted the informant.
"Who knows what his motivation is," he said. "But a lot of his information has been good in the past."
The next day, Green went to see another Iraqi. He waited until after dark so the neighbors wouldn't see the long line of Humvees pull up in front of Abu Haider's house. Sometime after 11 p.m., Abu Haider walked in wearing a gray dishdasha, a traditional Arab tunic, and smoking Davidoff cigarettes. A gold watch hung loosely on his left wrist.
Abu Haider, who asked that his full name not be used, is a Shiite businessman and power broker who's received hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts from the U.S. military during the past three years. He's also one of Green's main informants and often a conduit to others. He lives in a compound of nice homes.
A large man given to sweeping hand gestures and the influence of sizable amounts of alcohol, Abu Haider punctuates his conversation with statements such as, "Listen to me, Captain Green, I have worked with the coalition forces for three years and I have never told them a lie."
Green was there because he needed witnesses. His men had detained an insurgent named Bashir and had compiled a collection of sworn statements about his connection with kidnappings and killings. But only one of the statements tied him directly to an attack—a roadside bomb—against U.S. soldiers. Unless Green could come up with another statement or two linking Bashir to attacks against Americans, he'd have to turn him over to the Iraqi police, who've been known to release suspected insurgents for money.
Green explained the situation to Abu Haider.
"I know many people who can give you sworn statements about people putting bombs on the road," Abu Haider said.
Green moved to the edge of the sofa and said to his translator, "He says he has some witnesses. Do they know anything about Captain Weikel?"
Abu Haider smiled.
"I can give you the names of three people who lay bombs," Abu Haider said. "On the same road where Captain Weikel died."
"What are their names?" Green asked.
"I don't know," Abu Haider said.
About half an hour later, a collection of local politicians and businessmen invited by Abu Haider walked into the living room.
Green said hello, then made his pitch: "In order to get Bashir in Abu Ghraib (prison) for a very, very long time, I need one more witness who has seen him put in an IED (roadside bomb) and attack coalition or Iraqi forces."
Several of the men promised to produce witnesses within the week.
At least one of the three Iraqis had promised to become an informant. Now they were all dead. Green got the orders from brigade headquarters: Go find the bodies and then find out who killed them.
1st Lt. Garrett Cathcart, 24, of Indianapolis, explained: The men had been detained by another company. One had agreed to become an informer in exchange for their release. They'd been shot in a taxi either by insurgents because they were traitors or by Shiite militiamen because they were Sunnis.
Green and his men drove to an apartment complex—home to a mixture of Sunnis and Shiites—where the men had slept the night before.
"The Shiite guys for the most part aren't going to inform on other Shiites. They're going to inform on Sunni neighbors," said Green, who added that the same holds true for Sunnis. "So you've got to play both sides."
A funeral was being held for the taxi driver. His car was there: bullet holes through the windshield, doors and seats. Blood was smeared all over.
The family said an Iraqi police lieutenant had come by that morning. He seemed to be working very hard to solve the case, they said.
Green headed to the Taji police station. He wanted to speak with the lieutenant, 1st Lt. Nadhum Ajeed.
The police had bad news: On his way back from investigating the informants' murders, Ajeed had been shot to death.
Green asked to see Ajeed's file on the informants. It'd been sent to Baghdad.
Well, Green said, where are the photographs of the dead informants?
1st Lt. Ayad Ahmed told Green that there were no photographs.
"Where the . . . are the pictures, man?" Green said. "You guys always take pictures."
Ahmed said that, on second thought, the pictures were with another officer, but he lived far away.
"I think you're lying to me. I think you have the pictures here," Green said.
Green asked Ahmed if he found it strange that the lieutenant investigating the deaths had been killed.
"These killings are a coincidence," Ahmed said.
Green went to a smaller office across the hall, where a group of Iraqi officers was packed around a desk. A large photograph of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr hung on the wall behind them. On the facing wall, a smaller one showed Sadr at Mecca.
They said the officer who could answer Green's questions about the deaths was on the way.
A few minutes later, the officer walked in, saw Green and smiled.
"Oh man, you've got to be . . . kidding me," Green said.
Green's men had arrested the Iraqi police officer recently for setting up a checkpoint and robbing truck drivers.
The officer said he had no information about the killings.
The next day, Green checked back with police. There were still no pictures.
"They're being really weird about it," Green said. "Maybe they killed those guys—I don't know."
Green's mood was low. When Green's soldiers brought in the informant who lived near the bridge where Weikel was killed, the man turned out not to know much. Or at least he wasn't willing to say much.
"We didn't get what we thought we would," Green said. "We're sort of back to square one."
There was one bright note: Abu Haider, the informant, had delivered. An eyewitness came forward to say that he'd seen Bashir placing bombs targeting U.S. convoys. It looked like Bashir was headed for a long stay at Abu Ghraib prison.
That, for Green, was something to hold on to.
VIOLENCE IN TAJI
The area around Taji, north of Baghdad, is frequently the site of kidnappings and violence associated with Iraq's Sunni insurgency and feuding between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Recent incidents include:
_June 25: At least 16 workers were kidnapped at the Technology Research Center in Taji. Their fates are unknown.
_June 21: At least 50 workers and their family members were kidnapped near a factory in Taji. At least 35 have since been released or found.
_June 16: A mortar barrage killed at least two people and wounded 16 in Saba al Bour, a village near Taji.
_May 24: Gunmen killed an Iraqi soldier and wounded two others near the U.S. base in Taji.
_May 16: Four Iraqis who worked at the U.S. base in Taji were shot to death in a minivan. Eight other Iraqi passengers were wounded.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.