DALI ABBAS, Iraq—After more than a year of employing million-dollar technology and special forces teams who launched more than a dozen raids in the search for Rashid Ta'an, a man suspected of funding and arming insurgents across Iraq, the U.S. Army decided last week to go with something radically different. It trusted Iraqis to catch an Iraqi.
Even though the collar failed this time, the decision to rely on the fledgling Iraqi security forces marked a key step in working with and eventually returning responsibility for Iraq's security back to Iraqis. It's the sort of decision, military commanders have said, that may well decide the country's fate.
"It's clear that we are not the solution," said Lt. Col. Pete Newell, of the 2-2 Task Force, the segment of the 1st Infantry Division that patrols the area around Dali Abbas. "If someone comes in here and thinks, hey, I'm an American and I'm going to fix this, they've already made their first mistake."
The 1st Infantry had received a tip that Ta'an was sighted the day before—not weeks before, as usual—in Sangar, a tiny village just outside Dali Abbas. And he was expected to return to the same spot Tuesday.
During Saddam Hussein's rule, Ta'an was a Baath Party leader who doled out money and protection to a network of party faithful in the region.
"With guys like Rashid Ta'an, it's like chasing the godfather in Sicily," Newell said.
As one of the last at-large members of the U.S. military's original 55 most wanted, Ta'an has evaded capture by traveling a series of centuries-old smuggling routes that connect Dali Abbas, on the northern end, to the restive town of Baqouba, and then Baghdad and finally Fallujah, a longtime hotspot of the insurgency.
"It's a horrible, horrible place," 1st Infantry Capt. Tom Cobb said of Dali Abbas. "They shoot at us all the time."
U.S. soldiers in the area go to Dali Abbas on patrol about twice a week. Out of those eight patrols last month, six were attacked.
"The terrorist networks have gotten very complicated. They have intelligence departments, surveillance departments—and we are trying to get them with cops at checkpoints," said Kahtan Nori Jassim, the mayor of the town of Abu Sayda. "The terrorists are winning. They keep coming over the borders like a plague. Al-Qaida was nothing here before, it was primitive, but now it's a large, complex organization. They're winning."
The province's police force—its first line of defense—is crippled by a lack of resources.
There should be 7,404 police officers in Diyala province. To date, there are 3,550, who have 2,500 AK-47's among them. There are 132 Iraqi patrol vehicles for the entire province.
"When you talk with a policeman who has an AK-47 with 10 bullets, guys who put their lives out there, it's hard not to take it personally," Capt. Xander Bullock said.
The Iraqi National Guard too is way short of equipment it needs.
Newell and other officers of the 2-2 Task Force sketched out a massive operation that might finally net Ta'an. Humvees and tanks were to be positioned around Sangar, blocking all roads in and out. An entire platoon of soldiers was to be dropped into the town by Black Hawk helicopters as Kiowa surveillance helicopters zoomed back and forth. Up higher, beyond eyesight, unmanned drones would relay video to a command post.
Newell sat down with Lt. Col. Dhia'a Ismail Abid, the National Guard battalion leader, and mapped out his plans for a full assault.
After listening to Newell talk about the helicopters and humvees, Abid asked in his usual low tone whether the colonel would be willing to think about doing something different.
"He said, `I want to do it a much simpler way,'" said Maj. John Petkosek, who was in the room at the time.
A former captain in the Iraqi army's intelligence unit, Abid comes from one of the area's main tribes. His grandfather was a head sheik, as was his uncle.
"When I speak with Iraqis, they know me and my family, they can respect me," Abid said.
Instead of pushing in dozens of soldiers, whose movements would be detected from miles away by Ta'an's scouts, Abid said, why not use his men. He could send two groups of four, all from the area, to park their beat-up cars on the side of the road and, radios tucked away, hang around and wait for a Ta'an sighting.
Newell, with some reluctance, agreed.
"Sometimes we have to be smart enough to know when to listen to him," Newell said. "The overwhelming-force thing sometimes doesn't work."
Mazen Mohammed Ali, an Iraqi translator for the 1st Infantry, said that when he heard of the plan, he had deep reservations.
"Most of them ... (the National Guard) are scared, so they let the Baathists go," he said. "They don't have the large weapons that the bad guys do."
Asked whether he thought Abid's men would let Ta'an go if they saw him, Ali smiled and shrugged, as if to say, What do you expect?
So a group of U.S. soldiers found themselves sitting in the parking lot of the National Guard station Tuesday in Dali Abbas, waiting for word on whether Abid's men had sighted or captured Ta'an down the road.
Sitting in the shade, which was still hot in the 115-degree heat, Capt. Rodney McLaughlin looked up at the rooftops around him.
"They watch us all the time. Somebody right now is taking notes about how long we're staying here," he said. "There are so many (National Guard) checkpoints around here, it's hard for me to believe (Ta'an) has never driven through one."
Abid waited in the office for word about the results of the stakeout on his radio.
When an old black sedan drove up in front of the office—one of Abid's scout vehicles—McLaughlin craned his neck to see who was in the car.
"Did they get him?" he asked, with some excitement in his voice.
One by one, the Iraqis piled out.
They didn't have Ta'an. They said he never showed up.
Abid walked up to his men and shook their hands, then turned to McLaughlin. His face had the trace of a smile. He'd just carried out one of the biggest missions of not only his career, but also that of any Iraqi National Guard commander since the group's inception.
"Next time," Abid said, and with that he turned and began giving orders to his men. There was work to do.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-MILITARY