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Fresh U.S. troops in Iraq mean adjustments to violence, trust for both sides

KIRKUK, Iraq—Shaha Saleh and four of her daughters were planting peas when they heard the explosion last week near a U.S. military convoy that was passing through their speck of a village in remote northern farmlands.

Saleh grabbed her daughters by the hands and the hair, dragging them out of range of American soldiers firing back at faceless attackers. But they didn't run fast enough, Saleh said Wednesday from her bed at a hospital in Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad.

The soldiers left one daughter dead, another unable to walk and their mother with a leg so mangled it had to be severed at the knee. This was the village's introduction to the 25th Infantry Division, based in Hawaii, which arrived in northern Iraq just weeks ago as part of the largest troop rotation in U.S. military history.

In minutes, the good will that previous soldiers had worked a year to earn was destroyed. The freshly arrived troops must start from scratch in the tiny community a few miles from Hawijah, a stronghold for the northern insurgency.

Soldiers from the 25th ID were en route to a meeting Feb. 18 with tribal leaders, accompanied by remnants of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which is leaving Iraq after a year in the north. A bomb exploded near their convoy at 10:30 a.m., according to the military. In the chaos after the blast, soldiers chased the women and shot them after they didn't heed warnings to stop. No soldiers were injured.

"The soldiers perceived the women were a threat based on their evasive action," said Master Sgt. Robert Cargie, a spokesman for the military in northern Iraq. Cargie said the Army was investigating the incident, but "it doesn't look like the women were involved" in the bombing.

Critics of the massive troop rotation feared that such incidents would occur as jittery new soldiers arrive in an increasingly volatile Iraq. About 110,000 troops who've fought off simulated attacks and rehearsed meetings with community leaders will replace 130,000 soldiers who've experienced the real thing.

Villagers said they enjoyed a good relationship with soldiers from the 173rd, who frequently visited religious and tribal leaders.

"We welcomed the Americans as liberators. We even told them we would find them Iraqi wives and wouldn't let them go back to America," said Hameed Khalaf Abdullah, an elderly tribesman blinded from injuries he received during the Iran-Iraq war. "Now, we hate them. We hate what they did to our women, our children. They are savages."

Saleh's face is tattooed by tribal custom and lined from decades of fighting the sun and soil for her family's livelihood. The farmer she married when she was 18 died last year in a car accident. Widowed at 42, Saleh told her six boys and eight girls they must work harder in the fields because she was determined not to rely on relatives for handouts.

On Feb. 18, four of Saleh's daughters crouched with her in the dirt, skirts gathered around their knees, as they planted peas in their small plot near a main road through the village. The convoy rumbled by, followed by a loud blast from a homemade bomb. Gunshots rang out through the smoke, and villagers yelled, "Run! The Americans are shooting!"

Saleh joined other farmers as they dashed through mud to take refuge at the banks of a canal. The soldiers followed them, she said, as they tried to jump on a neighbor's flatbed truck and drive away from the danger.

Fourteen-year-old Intisar was the first to fall. The bullet split open her head and scattered her brains across the earth.

Samira, 15, was next. She dropped to the ground in pain after a bullet ripped through her thigh.

Finally, Saleh felt a sharp sting and heard the crunch of bone as her leg shattered. She collapsed in the mud near the canal, she said, screaming for her two other daughters to run.

The family was taken to an American first aid station, then to the Kirkuk hospital. Saleh was still wrapped in green military-issue blankets Wednesday as her family gathered to check on her after the amputation. Samira was released Tuesday and probably won't walk for months, doctors told the family.

"We used to wave to the soldiers when they passed us in the field," Saleh said. "We did nothing to them and they did nothing to us. But the soldiers now, the ones who did this, acted on purpose. But what can we do? We're powerless."

Cargie, the military spokesman, said trust went both ways in and near Hawijah, where troops recently surrounded the city and went door to door looking for insurgents. Departing units are working with the new arrivals to "share experience and lessons learned" for what Cargie described as a seamless transition.

"The 173rd succeeded in their area because they worked at it," Cargie said. "The 25th will do it, too."

Tears crept into the eyes of relatives who mourned Intisar, the 14-year-old who was buried a day after the shooting. She looked and behaved more like an adult than a child, family members said, describing her as a second mother to her sisters. Sweet and reliable, she loved to bake bread and milk the family cows.

"I swear by God that I can't bear to go home now," Saleh said, sobbing in her hospital bed. "If I go home, all my children will gather around me. Except one."

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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

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