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Soldiers sometimes rough despite risk of antagonizing friendly Iraqis

BAGHDAD, Iraq—American soldiers barged into the house at midnight. A bomb had exploded on the highway out front earlier that day, killing an Iraqi national guardsman.

"I want some answers," Sgt. 1st Class Glenn Aldrich demanded through an interpreter as he shoved the homeowner out his front door. The man's wife and children watched, sobbing, from a side room.

Hadn't this guy seen something? The Iraqi swore to God he hadn't.

As two soldiers with rifles stood by, Aldrich yelled into the man's face and whacked the ground with a metal baton that the Americans called a "haji-be-good stick."

"If I'm out here, and I get shot at, I'm shooting every house near me!" Aldrich, 35, yelled in his booming former drill sergeant's voice. "Because you aren't helping me catch the bad guys, and if you're not helping me, you are the bad guy."

The man stared back blankly, and Aldrich let him walk back into his house. The Americans stormed into four other homes on the block, with similar results.

After nearly 11 months in Iraq, the soldiers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, still couldn't tell friend from foe. Frustrated by a culture they didn't understand, and tired of having friends blown up, they often felt compelled to play bad cop, even though they knew that harsh measures risked creating more enemies.

"Every time we kill one of them, we breed more that want to fight us," Aldrich said. "We end up turning neutral people against us. It's not really our fault, though, because I have to defend myself."

His men weren't always rough. Sometimes Charlie Company soldiers were pictures of restraint, and when the need arose, they improvised, taking up the role of negotiator, social worker or neighborhood fixer.

Even Aldrich, who often played the "big mean guy," as he put it, would take time to play basketball with a resident or laugh with some children.

"I'm just a city manager with a gun," gray-haired, soft-spoken Sgt. 1st Class Sean Miller, 36, of Lyons, Kan., said the day before Iraq's Jan. 30 parliamentary elections, as he spent hours positioning Iraqi security forces at polling places.

On election day, the cavalry soldiers won a victory when they laid down a security cordon so tight that there wasn't a single attack in their sector. They spent the day driving around watching Iraqis wave and cheer and line up to vote.

It was a bright spot after nearly a year of frustration.

"What's really hard is the fine line between the bad guys and the good guys," said Staff Sgt. Riley Flaherty, a lanky, fast-talking character from Ohio. "Because if you piss off the wrong good guys, you're really in trouble. So you've really got to watch what you do and how you treat the people."

On another day, however, Flaherty saw it differently. "These people don't understand nice," he said. "You've got to be a hard-ass."

Such contradictions are understandable. The troopers of Charlie 1-8 Cav arrived in Iraq with almost no training in Arab culture or guerrilla war. In January they had just two interpreters, one of whom barely spoke English. Patrols without interpreters were disasters waiting to happen. One such patrol began randomly searching houses on a whim after midnight one night. The residents turned out to be Christians_ more likely to be the targets of terrorist attacks than the perpetrators.

"Why, mister, why?" one woman in a nightgown asked. The soldiers could only shrug and leave.

Aldrich recounted how a group of soldiers used fists and an electric stun gun to punish an Iraqi teenager who'd flashed his middle finger.

"I've got 200,000 Iraqis I've got to control with 18 people," Aldrich said, referring to his platoon's patrol sector. "So I've got to command respect. And unfortunately, all that hearts and minds stuff, I can't even think about that."

At another point he added: "There are things I have to do out here that I can't explain to my chain of command, and that the American people would never understand."

The hundred or so troops of Charlie 1-8 Cav spent their days patrolling their sector in groups of two or three armored Humvees. Occasionally a tank or two would come along.

All day long, the soldiers pointed their guns at Iraqi civilians, whom they called "hajis," the Iraq war's version of "gooks" in Vietnam and "skinnies" in Somalia. Wary of ambushes, they rammed cars that got in the way of their Humvees. Always on the lookout for car bombs, they stopped, screamed at, shoved to the ground and searched people driving down the road after curfew—or during the day if they looked suspicious.

Iraqis who didn't stop at warning shots when they approached a Humvee in the middle of the night were met with a hail of gunfire. Sometimes the dead were clearly civilians, and sometimes they were clearly insurgents. Often there was no way to tell.

The soldiers had concluded that most Iraqis lacked the courage to stand up to the insurgents, and it angered them.

"I mean, everybody in this country has a weapon. Somebody is setting up a mortar tube in your front lawn—do something! Call somebody! Shoot `em!" said Charlie Company's commander, Capt. Rodney Schmucker, 30, a West Point graduate from Latrobe, Pa., near Pittsburgh.

Early in their tour, someone from Charlie Company thought he saw gunshots from a roof while he was manning a defensive position along one of the base walls. The troopers poured heavy weapons fire into the house.

The next morning, soldiers arrived to find several female members of a family dead—and one little girl alive, clinging to her dead mother. Some of the men broke down in tears, the soldiers said.

"I will never forget that girl raising her head up," said Staff Sgt. Victor Gutierrez of Los Angeles.

The girl was flown to a hospital, where doctors saved her life.

Aldrich recounted the story matter-of-factly. Asked if the unintentional killing of innocent civilians bothered him, he replied:

"The one thing you learn over here is that there are no innocent civilians, except the kids. And even them—the ones that are all, `Hey mister, mister, chocolate?'—I'll be killing them someday."

The elections, however, softened the mistrust the soldiers had built up over nearly a year of being attacked and demonized.

Instead of hunting down insurgents who attacked Iraqis lined up to vote or cleaning up after bombs, they spent the day driving around and waving to cheering Iraqi civilians, many of them brandishing the ink-stained fingers that meant they'd voted.

"I have never seen Iraqis smile more than I have today," said Staff Sgt. Jason Ellis, 28, of Springfield, Mo. "It makes the pain of the last year worth it."

Schmucker, the company commander, was happy, too. But he knew the momentary euphoria wasn't the end of the insurgency. He was right. The week after the election was typically violent, with the usual litany of suicide attacks, assassinations and kidnappings.

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

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

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