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Sectarian suspicion plagues Iraqi Army

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A three-day tour with U.S. and Iraqi troops aiming to stop Baghdad's plunge toward civil war showed one thing clearly: Iraqi forces remain unprepared to police the capital city alone.

The joint operation's neighborhood searches illuminated the growing distrust that the average Iraqi has for the security forces in the midst of sectarian warfare that's claiming more Iraqi lives each month. Many members of the Shiite Muslim-dominated security forces are suspected of siding with death squads that target Sunni Muslims.

During an operation in the Baghdad neighborhood of Amariyah, a majority Sunni area that's been a hotbed of insurgent activity, resident after resident said they opened their doors to Iraqi forces only when they saw American troops with them. U.S. forces tried to assure them that not all Iraqi troops are bad.

"I think the Iraqis like Americans more than each other," said Maj. Barney Hill, of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Brigade, 6th Iraqi Division Military Transition Team, of Winnemucca, Nev.

The show of might by U.S. forces quelled the violence in what's usually one of Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods, but many Iraqis told the soldiers that they feared more killings when the Americans left.

Iraqi soldiers searched the houses while U.S. troops stood outside. In the sector of Capt. Kent Park, the Charlie Company commander of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, the Iraqi forces were courteous and professional.

Residents who spoke English, however, quietly pulled some U.S. soldiers aside and told them that once the Americans left, the Iraqi soldiers would steal from and harass Sunni residents.

The U.S. soldiers watched their Iraqi counterparts, observing such things as how many showed up for work. On the first day there were 85. By day three they were down to 64.

"We are the ones who have to push them," said Maj. Will Voohries, who leads the 4th Battalion, 1st Brigade, 6th Iraqi Division Military Transition Team.

He said three Iraqi soldiers had been fired for stealing cell phones from residents.

Col. Sabbah Kadhim, the commander of the 6th Iraqi Army Division, which was conducting the patrols, denied that there's a problem with sectarianism.

"The people love the Iraqi army. They like the Iraqi army more than they like the Americans," Kadhim said, pointing out two Sunni soldiers in his unit. "They are treated the same as Shiite soldiers." The soldiers nodded hesitantly.

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who's a member of the country's Shiite majority, said Thursday that Iraqi forces could secure most of the country if U.S. troops withdrew.

The Baghdad security plan was launched June 14 in an effort to tamp down the growing violence, which killed 1,815 people last month in Baghdad. American and Iraqi forces are to go through the city neighborhood by neighborhood, searching for insurgents and militiamen, confiscating weapons and conducting a census.

The sweeps are to be accompanied by improvements in electricity and water supplies, though there have been few, if any, visible improvements yet.

Amariyah, once home to Saddam Hussein's top military commanders, was among the first of Baghdad's neighborhoods to fall to the Sunni insurgency. Many shops have been closed for months, and piles of trash line the streets.

The main thoroughfares are littered with burnt-out cars and car parts, evidence of recent bombings. "The insurgency lives," some of the graffiti on the streets reads.

During the three-day operation in Amariyah, U.S. soldiers from the 172nd Stryker Brigade, based near Fairbanks, Alaska, cordoned off every street and supervised Iraqi forces as they searched each of the neighborhood's 3,600 homes. A ban on driving was imposed, keeping many residents from going to work. Nearly all the shops were closed.

Yet the Americans found few insurgents. Not once in the three days was there an insurgent attack. U.S. soldiers stood freely outside their intimidating-looking Stryker vehicles, not fearing the area's snipers.

In the end, the three days netted what seemed like a small haul amid Baghdad's violence: nine suspected insurgents and 37 weapons, most notably two 250-pound bombs.

Some residents pointed out where snipers and fighters usually are stationed. They told the soldiers that if they come back next week, they can find the attackers.

"If there are bad people here, they have already left," Park said. "We disrupted that."

During the third day of the operation, Park reached out to residents, chatting with those who were taking advantage of the quiet, empty streets.

"Is the search affecting your ability to do your job?" Park asked a group of young men working at a bread shop.

They said that as soon as Park's troops left, the problems would begin. They charged that Shiite militias have infiltrated the Iraqi army and police, a common complaint by Sunnis.

"The slaughterers will come back," said one man, who wanted to be identified only as Omar, age 18. He made a slashing motion with his hand along his neck.

When the operation was finished, Park said: "I think we are at a critical point, but this operation isn't going to solve the overall problems."


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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