In peacekeeping mode, US troops tested

In the next 10 days, the US will add 4,000 troops to the 12,000 in Baghdad.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The challenge for US forces in Iraq couldn't be starker: Keeping the peace in the face of some determined and violent anti-American elements, while at the same time persuading Iraqis that this is a benevolent occupation.

Despite budding US efforts to create an interim Iraqi government, Iraqis across the political spectrum say that the lack of law and order is their top concern.

Tuesday, US reconstruction chief Jay Garner convened a "town hall" meeting on security issues with more than 50 Iraqi city officials and top American military brass.

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At the meeting, Maj. Gen. Glenn Webster said that the 12,000 US troops already in Baghdad would be increased by 3,000 to 4,000 within 10 days, to mount foot and vehicle patrols, sometimes with Iraqi police volunteers.

But the sense of insecurity remains acute, and that was underscored Monday night. US troops opened fire on gunmen on a motorcycle and on top of buildings who the soldiers said had infiltrated an anti-American demonstration of 200 people, and fired at US positions in a school in Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, according to US Central Command in Qatar. Iraqi hospital staff reported that 13 Iraqis were killed, and 75 wounded. Some Iraqis said that among the demonstrators were unarmed students protesting the use of their school as a barracks by US forces, as well as Islamists and Hussein loyalists. None said there was any shooting from their side.

The incident will further increase US-Iraqi tension on the streets, as did a blast on the outskirts of Baghdad on Saturday.

Iraqi ammunition - including one million bullets and 40 missiles - had been collected at the site and was under American care, but was struck by Iraqi attackers with incendiary grenades, according to US officials. The explosion killed at least 10 civilians, and sparked fierce anti-US protests.

"We have found that there are people in this country who don't want it to be secure, who don't want electricity on," General Webster told the Iraqis at the security meeting. "We need your help to identify those threats."

Officials characterized such incidents as deliberately aimed at undermining US-led rule here, to turn the population against the American presence. Recent interviews by the Monitor with captured paramilitary loyalists of Saddam Hussein, confirm that orders had been issued to help make post-Saddam Iraq ungovernable.

"There are people who don't want this to succeed, so there are gunfights at night, power-brokering going on, gangs that are trying to establish their turf. All that is happening," says British Gen. Tim Cross, the deputy head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA). "I'm a chaos man, not a conspiracy man, and I think in this environment, there is mostly chaos," says General Cross. "But it would be naive to expect that there is not some conspiracy going on, particularly with regard to the burning of ministries."

A conference of some 300 Iraqis on Monday resolved to meet again in about a month, to determine the shape of the interim authority. But the Iraqis at the security meeting Tuesday - a haphazard collection of people whom US and British officials have been working with since they arrived here last week - made clear that political progress will depend upon restoring order.

"It's urgent - security is life," says Yourush Haido, an Assyrian writer and English teacher at the meeting. "Without it, there is no life."

Even in their relatively small numbers, US troops are trying to bridge the war-peace gap. One US Army patrol in Baghdad Sunday stopped to chat amiably with a group of families who have taken over houses that were once gifts for Saddam Hussein's intelligence cadre.

But the ambiance suddenly changed when the troops were told of a cluster of gunmen two blocks away. "Oh, really?" asked Lt. Mark McClellan. "Let's go get 'em!" he told his soldiers.

Within moments, his unit had taken the guns from militiamen of a pro-US party who couldn't show a weapons permit. Loyalists of Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress - who wore small numbered badges like name-tags, with the INC logo, but no uniforms - were told where they could retrieve their guns when they could produce a permit.

Half an hour later - after throwing out candy to children as they drove by them on the street - the Americans seized more guns, from an Islamic group that had taken over the backyard of the mansion of Tariq Aziz, the former deputy prime minister.

But while such patrols may keep some guns off the street, even if temporarily, there are gaps. When US units moved away Monday morning from a plush mansion owned by a former relative of the ruling family, near the Baghdad University, armed looters swarmed in. For two days, shots rang out as looters battled for everything from cutlery to fans - and carted it off like ants in a single line across an empty lot.

"It is to be expected where we are after the end of hostilities and before there is some other authority, that you're going to have a little bit of a vacuum," says a senior ORHA official. "The question is: How are you going to fill it? [Iraqis] are very concerned."

Protecting hospitals "is a religious responsibility for everyone," says Sheikh Jamal al-Wakil, head of the Wafaq al-Islamiya religious party, who attended the Monday conference and Tuesday's meeting. Concerns have been raised by doctors because gunmen loyal to clerics have taken control of hospitals. "This is temporary," he says, "until an interim government committee will create a local authority."

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