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

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

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.

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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.

Gleason says his men searched the eight Iraqis, and found two AK-47 assault rifles - one with a warm barrel indicating it had been fired recently - and two pistols, "both of them locked and loaded," by the two badly wounded men, Tahar and Haidar Khassem.

When the gunfire brought curious neighbors onto the streets and balconies, Gleason grew nervous. "I didn't like the tactical situation," he says. "We could have been surrounded by 40 guys with AKs".

Shooting into the air to make people go back indoors, his men gave chase to a man they said they had seen running away from the scene of the incident. Blowing the lock off Ahmed Thajil's metal front door with a shotgun blast, they burst in to his home.

Mr. Thajil, who said he had been awakened by gunfire a few minutes earlier and gone back to bed, found himself on the floor of his tiny hallway, with a Ranger's boot on his chin. "He beat me with his rifle butt," he says, pointing to bandages above his right eye and on the back of his head. "It seemed the Americans were terrified themselves."

Other soldiers searched his bedroom for weapons, but found nothing, he adds, a claim that Gleason confirmed.

'Butt strokes to the head'

By their own admission, the Rangers are not gentle when they deal with suspects in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

"We tell them to get on the ground, and sometimes they argue," explains Gleason. "We increase force with butt strokes to the head, and they seize up. We show them who's boss and once they realize, they cooperate unconditionally."

Most law-abiding Iraqi citizens appear to welcome such rough treatment for the hoodlums and thieves who have been spreading chaos through the capital. Law and order is a primary concern for most Baghdadis since the fall of the Iraqi regime last month, and many Iraqis see the formation of an interim authority as crucial to ending the chaos and fully restoring functioning utilities.

Sunday Paul Bremer, the US civilian administrator for Iraq, denied published reports that the US would delay the formation of an interim government. Iraqis politicians plan to hold a national conference for this purpose by the end of the month.

But US troops complain that, in the meantime, Iraqis aren't doing enough themselves.

"The people want law and order but they don't want to get involved in it," says Capt. James Dykes, a company commander with the 3rd Infantry Division who regularly leads patrols across a wide swath of central Baghdad. "It's only recently that I've seen people beginning to help" by offering tips about where to find criminals.

That change of heart, Captain Dykes believes, is the fruit of his patrolling.

"We do presence patrols," he says. "We show law-abiding civilians that we are there to enforce law and order. They see us out there in force, trying to help them. We are making a difference, but it takes time."

Dykes' commanding officer, Lt. Col. Scott Rutter, says the general crime rate has gone down in his sector over recent weeks, and that his unit has broken up a stolen-car ring, but that "we've seen some increase in attacks on us."

20 to 30 Iraqis killed

His men have killed between 20 and 30 Iraqis over the past month "when individual soldiers have determined a threat to their lives," and arrested 120 to 160 "hard-core looters," with only three minor casualties among his troops.

He worries, though, about organized crime, and members of the Baath Party beginning to stage raids on coalition troops and on infrastructure projects that they are trying to rehabilitate.

In the end, coalition officials say, only economic recovery will bring the stability that Iraqis crave, and Gleason says he finds "it wears on you, dealing with people who think the US Army has the solution for everything."

He says bluntly, "The only thing we can really provide," he says bluntly, "is security. If you tell me where the bad guy is, I'll kick down his door and root him out for you."

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