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Army's most modern high-tech forces discover hard lesson

MOSUL, Iraq—When the soldiers of the U.S. Army's Stryker Brigade rolled into the northern Iraqi city of Mosul last year on their new, 38,000-pound machines that look like tanks on wheels, they were coming to an oasis of relative calm amid a spreading insurgency.

Eleven months later, Mosul has become one of the most violent places in Iraq, and some U.S. soldiers there say that's partly because there aren't enough American troops to fight the insurgency.

The rising violence, they say, has taught them a hard lesson: It's often best to fight insurgents the old-fashioned way, with boots on the ground rather than the latest high-tech equipment.

Hundreds of Iraqis have been assassinated in Mosul, shot in the head and dumped in graveyards and on the roadsides. The provincial governor was killed in an attack on his convoy last July. Insurgents, who apparently knew which car he was in, attacked with grenades and gunfire.

Last month, a suicide bomber walked into the mess hall of a U.S. base in Mosul and killed 22 people, including 14 American soldiers, and wounded 69. Frequent intelligence reports now warn the soldiers at the base that insurgents are planning to abduct one of them.

The Stryker brigades are the vanguard of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's vision of a new Army, one transformed into smaller, more agile units with high-tech equipment that can go anywhere, anytime. The brigades' heavily armored vehicles can reach 70 mph, carry advanced computer systems and heavy firepower, and absorb blasts from roadside bombs or rocket-propelled grenades, which can destroy a Humvee or even a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

The approximately 5,000 soldiers of the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division who took control of Mosul last February were the first full-sized Stryker force to go into combat. They replaced some 20,000 soldiers from the 101st Airborne, a division with the ability to drop units in by helicopter, but based mainly on traditional infantry structure.

The men of the 101st moved around Mosul in Humvees but sustained few casualties, even though some of their Humvees lacked armor.

Conditions in Mosul, however, have gotten worse since the Strykers arrived.

Visiting the town of Hammam al Alil, south of the city, Lt. Col. Todd McCaffrey said the area had become a "planning, bedroom community for terrorist cells "that coordinate attacks in Mosul.

McCaffrey, a 41-year-old from Hudson, Ohio, stationed a company of men in the town, headquartered in an old agricultural college, to re-establish the American military presence there.

"We spend a lot of time trying to separate the populace from the insurgency," said McCaffrey, who's with a unit of the 25th Infantry Division that deployed to Iraq in late September. "Obviously, when you go from the 20,000 that the 101st had to 5,000, there's a clear change."

A steady stream of Army units has been sent to reinforce the troops in Mosul during the past two months, increasing the American presence to some 12,000 soldiers, according to Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of the Stryker brigade.

"You win this thing with boots on the ground, not by throwing more vehicles at the place," said 1st Lt. Ed Mikkelsen of the Stryker Brigade.

Capt. Steve Szilvassy, a 33-year-old from West Paterson, N.J., nodded in agreement.

"When you don't have enough soldiers, it's a hard thing to do," he said. "We went from a division to a brigade here."

Asked if they thought the intense fighting in Mosul was the result of insurgents leaving Fallujah, a rebel stronghold that the U.S. military retook in November, the two young officers said they thought that was a factor, but not nearly as important as having too few men.

After his conversation with Szilvassy, Mikkelsen and his platoon drove to the town of al Mawali, a few miles west of Mosul. Mikkelsen, a 29-year-old from Vancouver, Wash., was recording the locations of schools, mosques and local leaders because records of them had been lost.

As the soldiers walked through the town, a crowd of children followed, smiling and giving the thumbs-up sign. They made it difficult, at first, to notice a man on a motorcycle who was circling the group and taking pictures.

The American soldiers probably had just been "made" by insurgents.

The local sheik's nephew told Mikkelsen he hadn't spoken with an American soldier since the 101st Airborne was in the area. Mikkelsen looked pained at the news.

He asked the sheik if there was anything he could do for him.

"Please don't shoot us at night," the sheik said.

As they walked past a mosque near the sheik's home, Mikkelsen's translator pointed to a spray-painted message on its wall: "Allah is great. Long live Jihad."


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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Stryker