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US troops in perilous police work

The death of one Baghdad man last week shows the public anger - and quiet relief - that follows the US crackdown on lawlessness in the capital.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 19, 2003


American soldiers call it simply "the slum," the most dangerous district in Baghdad.

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Its fetid alleyways, so narrow that a man cannot see the sky above his head, shelter gunmen, thieves, and seething resentment against America. Friday morning, at the funeral of a local man killed in a nighttime encounter with a US military patrol, that mood boiled over into men's screams and women's wails of anger.

Though accounts differ over exactly what happened in the early morning hours last Thursday, the tale of how Mohammed Tahar was killed and three of his friends were wounded offers a dramatic glimpse into how American soldiers, with their new get-tough policy to combat lawlessness, deal with threats in Baghdad's urban badlands.

As a crowd of mourners followed Mr. Tahar's simple wooden coffin through the Al Rashid district downtown, borne high by neighbors above the sewage and garbage fouling the dirt alleys, the emotional chants were shocking.

"Down with Bush, up with Saddam," cried one man.

"All of us will be fedayeen [pro-Saddam irregulars]," shouted Mahdi Mehsen hoarsely. "We will take revenge if they don't stop this."

To be sure, not everyone in the neighborhood agreed with them. Tahar's mother-in-law, for example, drew reporters aside to tell them in private that one man wounded in the incident was "a criminal." She added, "He terrifies everyone, even his mother, with his drinking and shooting. The Americans have liberated us. We greet them."

But to hear Ismail Ibrahim tell the story, his cousin Mohammed was just shooting the breeze with some friends that night, sitting on the sidewalk under a streetlamp that was working - a rare occurrence in his part of the power-starved capital.

Past curfew

It was past 1 a.m., long after curfew. But curfew is for the main roads, Mr. Ibrahim says, "not popular neighborhoods like this one." He himself was sitting on a stoop 15 yards up the alley, and no one had ever told him he shouldn't.

Suddenly, he recounts, he saw American soldiers advancing out of the darkness up the narrow street. "I went inside, and then I heard shooting. I came back out when the Americans had left, and saw Mohammed and two other men lying on the ground."

"The Americans shot at us without warning," adds Adnan Khassem, who said he had been sitting with Tahar and a group of other men, including his brother Haidar Khassem, who was critically injured in the incident.

"I hid in a doorway. The others didn't have time. They didn't warn us or tell us what to do," he says.

That is not how Lt. Stephen Gleason, the US Army Ranger who led the fatal patrol, remembers Wednesday night.

Lieutenant Gleason had been asked to scour "the slum" because, night after night, men hiding on its rooftops had been firing at American troops occupying the water company headquarters, 150 yards away across Republic Street.

Gleason's five-man patrol heard three separate bursts of gunfire, he said, so through the maze of pitch-black alleys, in cautious single file, "we moved to the sounds of the guns.

"We came up on a group of eight men" he recalls. "As we stepped into the light, someone kicked a can and we startled them."

Two of the men were standing in the shadows, carrying guns, he says. "They thought we couldn't see them but we could see them plain as day" through night vision goggles from 10 yards away.

"My point man told them to drop their weapons. One guy lifted his weapon up. We engaged with a shotgun. Hit one man in the face, the other in the abdomen. The other six did as they were told."

Ibrahim disputes this account. "We don't have weapons here," he claims. "Our neighborhood is quiet."

But spent shells that local residents say they had collected from the scene, which they gave to reporters Friday, belie that. Among M-16 cartridges, ejected when the US soldiers shot in the air to disperse onlookers after the incident, were an empty Iraqi shotgun shell, AK-47 cartridges, and 9mm pistol cartridges of a type that are not issued to US troops.