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Challenge at checkpoints is to keep focus while respecting Iraqis

NORTHERN KUWAIT—Operating a military checkpoint is boring most of the time. It also is one of the most sensitive and dangerous assignments.

It is sensitive because if U.S. soldiers are to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis, they have to treat them with respect at checkpoints. It is dangerous because soldiers never know when the next man, woman or child approaching a checkpoint is carrying a suicide bomb.

"That's a tough assignment because, boy, you can get complacent," said Lt. Col. Frank Sherman, commander of 1st Battalion, 13th Armor, from Fort Riley, Kan.

As his tank unit waits to go into Iraq, Sherman's soldiers are practicing all facets of operating a checkpoint.

Outside their isolated desert camp, the tank soldiers have set up practice checkpoints on both sides of an 8-foot-high sand berm. On one side of the berm Friday, a scout platoon guarded a checkpoint with an MK-19 gun that fires 40 mm grenades and with a .50-caliber machine gun, both mounted on Humvees.

An approaching supply truck has to slow down to maneuver through a snaking course lined by razor-sharp concertina wire. The wire can stop a vehicle by wrapping around its undercarriage.

When a vehicle reaches the checkpoint, passengers are searched in a holding area, set off by more concertina wire. Soldiers are not to touch Muslim women during searches, except in emergencies. Such contact is deeply offensive. If female soldiers are not available to lightly pat down women, other occupants of the car will conduct the search under direction of soldiers.

The driver, meanwhile, remains with the vehicle. Soldiers direct the driver to open doors and compartments. If a bomb explodes, the bomber would take the brunt.

A minimum number of soldiers remain by the vehicle, to minimize casualties. That lesson was driven home after four Army soldiers died when a car bomb exploded at a checkpoint near Najaf on March 29.

Soldiers have dug two sandbag bunkers. If they came under attack, they could dive into the holes and fire from protected positions.

But an effective checkpoint isn't only about intimidation. A key goal is to gain Iraqis' trust, said Capt. Jason Pape. His Bravo Company soldiers are learning how to say words and phrases in Arabic including "it's safe," "please" and "thank you."

A few kind words will help put Iraqis at ease when they are surrounded by soldiers toting weapons, Pape said.

A willingness to speak even the most limited Arabic also will demonstrate that U.S. soldiers respect Iraqi culture, Pape said. "These are good people, and they deserve respect especially when we talk to them."

Most people will pass through a checkpoint without incident. The challenge becomes not losing focus, Brewer said. Every person must be scrutinized.

"It's that 101st guy that's going to have something"—weapons or a bomb.

"He's the one, if he slips by, he's going to cause harm to you or someone else."

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+CHECKPOINT

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