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U.S. troops shift to less aggressive tactics in hunting terrorists in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—When 2nd Lt. Mallory Chambers was ordered to Iraq last spring, he thought he'd be fighting a war the way he was trained to, by calling in artillery fire as U.S. troops and tanks slugged it out with Saddam Hussein's army on the desert plains of Mesopotamia.

But the conventional war ended before Chambers and the rest of the Army's 1st Armored Division could join the fray. Now the 32-year-old fire support officer finds himself leading fellow artillerymen on patrols and raids in a sprawling city of 8 million.

"You know, when we first came here, we thought we'd be fighting a real war," the Jacksonville, Ark., native said recently. "Now we've got guys hiding out behind buildings, shooting at us from behind cars, then disappearing into the civilian population."

The experience of Chambers and the 17 men in his platoon, all forward observers with the 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment, of Baumholder, Germany, is typical of what 130,000 U.S. troops are facing in postwar Iraq. GI's trained to fight a uniformed enemy in classic, set-piece battles are hunkered down against elusive and often unseen guerrilla fighters who launch small-scale ambushes and roadside bomb attacks and drift away virtually at will. And they've had to soften tactics to avoid alienating the local population.

"It's difficult at times," Chambers said, as his platoon, stationed at an abandoned airport in Baghdad, readied for an afternoon reconnaissance mission. "You can't tell who's on our side and who's not."

Military officials say the number of attacks on U.S. and allied troops still averages around a dozen a day. But they say the attacks are becoming more sophisticated, an indication perhaps that foreign terrorists—who officials say are steadily filtering into Iraq—are lending expertise and training. Attacks with improvised explosive devices are increasingly combined with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, which indicates better tactical coordination and control.

The seemingly relentless pace of attacks, and the rising death toll, has frustrated many soldiers, who don't know where and how to strike back.

"Part of you just wants to open fire when something . . . happens," said Spc. Mark Griffiths, 28, of Portland, Ore., also with 4-27 Field Artillery. "But who do you shoot? You've got to have a good temperament."

So far, the soldiers of 4-27 Field Artillery have been lucky. No one in the unit has been killed. Only a handful have been wounded. Soldiers want to believe they are helping the people of Iraq. But some wonder if the same Iraqis who wave at them by day shoot at them by night.

"It's kind of like drive-by shootings," said Sgt. Ryan Yeloushan, 26, of Tampa, Fla. "They just hit us and run. We have little kids throwing rocks at us. It's a good majority of them. There's not many of them that like us."

With no end to the guerrilla attacks in sight, Yeloushan said he wondered if the United States might be better off by handing off responsibility for stabilizing Iraq to someone else.

"We're probably winning it," he said. "But I don't think we can ever change these people. We're doing some good here. But if we were to pull out, and the U.N. took over, it might just be a better suit."

Soldiers with 4-27 Field Artillery conduct reconnaissance patrols daily and carry out raids three to four times a week at sites associated with former loyalists to Saddam's regime and other anti-American elements.

About 95 percent of their intelligence is based on tips from walk-in informants, said 1st Lt. Chris Kane, 24, of Fairfax, Va. Each mission generates a new lead. About 10 percent of the missions result in the capture of weapons or suspected militants.

"Sometimes, we get out on a mission, and it turns out to be nothing," Kane said. "Sometimes we knock down somebody's door, and they tell us we're at the wrong house. But then, they tell about something else."

For weeks after the war's major combat ended, U.S. soldiers in Iraq focused on large-scale sweeps and aggressive raids in rounding up suspected militants. Individual raids were conducted as by-the-book combat operations, utilizing speed, surprise and overwhelming force.

But early last month, alarmed by reports that these tactics were alienating the Iraqi populace—and possibly creating more enemies—Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, ordered a shift in tactics that emphasized better use of selective intelligence and a scaled-down approach to hitting suspected enemy sites. Instead of going in aggressively and asking questions later, American troops would, whenever possible, seal off an area first, and ask permission to search individual dwellings. The approach, known as "cordon and knock," is supposed to mollify concerns that U.S. tactics are violating Iraqi customs and social mores.

"It's all about dignity and respect," said Staff Sgt. Michael McCullough, 26, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "There's no aggression. It's friendly, just like we're talking now."

On a recent night, the "Predator" element of 4-27 Field Artillery received a tip that suspected regime loyalists were using an underground tunnel in downtown Baghdad as a staging area to attack U.S. troops. The structure was underneath a row of high-rise apartment buildings on Haifa Street, one of the most dangerous stretches of road in Baghdad for American soldiers.

The raid took place around 9:30 p.m., one the busiest times of the evening, before the nightly curfew sets in.

As the 17 soldiers from "Predator" element prepared to mount up on their Humvees, McCullough issued a final reminder.

"Dignity and respect, men!" he shouted. "Dignity and respect!"

The streets outside the camp were largely deserted. More Humvees joined the column until they numbered more than two dozen. A gold-domed mosque was lit brilliantly against the night sky.

At Haifa Street, one column of Humvees set up a series of checkpoints as another platoon of soldiers dismounted and glided briskly through the shadows toward the apartment building that housed the suspected enemy hideout. Kane, the lieutenant, knocked on the door and asked through an interpreter if they could search the building. A janitor gave his assent. A few soldiers took up assigned security positions as most of the platoon moved down into the basement.

The search took less than an hour. The tunnel turned out to be a bomb shelter constructed by Saddam's regime, probably during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The sweltering structure reeked of benzene. A manhole gave easy access from inside for anyone who might want to place a bomb on the street above, but the structure was empty, except for a few scattered plates of moldy food, a small plastic bag of about 100 AK-47 rounds, and a length of electrical wire and switches that perhaps could have been used as a detonating device. Despite a solid tip, the soldiers had come up empty-handed.

Under lengthy questioning, Ahmed, the janitor, an Egyptian immigrant, told U.S. officers that the bomb shelter had been used by irregular militia, known as Saddam Fedayeen, during the war five months ago, but had been empty since.

"We don't allow anyone to enter in this building," Ahmed said, speaking to Lt. Col. Brian McKiernan, the commander of 4-27 Field Artillery. "The residents are Shiite, not Sunni, and they hated Saddam. If I see anything in the future, I will tell you."

The two men shook hands.

"We had some intel that several regime figures had used it to hide in the past couple of weeks," said McKiernan, 39, of Fairfax, Va. "But it doesn't appear that anyone has been using those rooms down there recently but the janitor. This is what we'd call a dry hole."

Back on the street, the soldiers decided to do a quick security sweep, looking in trash bins behind the building and in adjacent alleys. A few sauntered into a game room next door and joined briefly in a game of pool. There were a few smiles and laughs among the Iraqi men gathered outside the place. Others just glared at the soldiers.

As the troops were preparing to leave, an Iraqi man in his early 30s approached Sgt. Maj. Rob Kelly, 49, of Atlanta, 4-27 Field Artillery's top enlisted man. As a handful of children gathered around Kelly, who stands well over 6 feet tall, clutching at his fatigue blouse with shouts of "Hey mister, hey mister," the Iraqi asked if the Americans would increase their patrols in the area. Armed robbery was on the rise, he complained. People were afraid to go outside their homes at night.

Kelly listened for a while, but quickly grew exasperated.

"Look," he said, speaking through an interpreter. "Tell him that we used to have checkpoints all up and down this road. But my soldiers were getting shot at all the time, so we moved them. And whenever we'd come out here for information on who was doing it, nobody would know anything. Tell him we're doing everything we can, but people like him just need to point them out to us."

The man said he couldn't tell Kelly who the attackers were. All he knew was they weren't from Haifa Street. He asked again for more patrols. The exchange ended. Kelly shook his head in frustration as the man walked away.

"You know, the majority of the people are behind us," he said. "And they tell us they need more patrols, but when we put them out, they get shot at. And out here, they won't come forward. The best information we get is when people walk through our gates, but when they won't come forward, there is not much we can do."


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+gilkey