Iraq's restive 'Sunni Triangle'
"Walah! By God! He's just a sick old man!" the Iraqi women wailed as US soldiers blindfolded a balding, gray-haired suspect during a predawn raid in downtown Tikrit.Skip to next paragraph
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The man claimed to be a firefighter. US military officers said he was Brig. Gen. Daher Ziana, the former security chief for Saddam Hussein's sprawling palaces. This time, the Americans were right.
More often, though, US forces find Iraqis they detain pose little threat. Since June, troops have seized thousands of Iraqis in aggressive sweeps in the "Sunni Triangle," the 100-mile swath from Baghdad north to Tikrit where 80 percent of guerrilla attacks occur. The bulk of people apprehended - 86 percent of the nearly 700 captives in two operations - are quickly freed.
To be sure, the tough American tactics come as resistance fighters mount increasingly sophisticated strikes on US troops in what has become Iraq's killing zone. Three more US soldiers died in coordinated ambushes last week in Tikrit.
Yet whether it's US infantrymen kicking in doors, or intelligence officers sifting through files, the difficulty of distinguishing friend from foe is stymieing the US-led occupation of Iraq. Each case of mistaken identity - from detaining a student instead of a Saddam Fedayeen, to putting a corrupt Baath Party official in power, to accidentally gunning down Iraqi police - alienates more of the Iraqi public.
The problem is stark in Tikrit, a stronghold of regime diehards, powerful tribes, and senior members of Mr. Hussein's Baath Party. Here, graffiti scrawled in English on city walls declares "Down Bosh!" and "No USA!" Slogans in Arabic proclaim "All love and loyalty to our leader Saddam Hussein!"
Each morning, a line of citizens shuffles past a Bradley Fighting Vehicle at the dusty, barbwired gate of a Tikrit military compound. Skirting a machine-gunner at the front door, they make their way to a public complaints office run by the Army's 4th Infantry Division.
Half of the visitors are inquiring about Iraqis detained by the US-led coalition. Ten percent are seeking compensation for damaged property or for relatives killed accidentally by American forces.
Army Spc. Frank Mejorado, a blunt-spoken artilleryman from Aurora, Ill., who runs the office, says the requests range from the serious to the absurd. "One old man claimed he wasn't married because American forces invaded Iraq. He wanted us to go find him a wife," says Specialist Mejorado. "I'm not running an escort service."
Much of the day, though, Mejorado repeats his mantra on detainees. "We don't beat them. We don't kill them. They have food, water, and a chance to shower," he says in a voice scratchy from overuse.
One recent morning, a woman wearing traditional black robes, her face creased with worry, came begging for the release of her 25-year-old son. "He was sleeping and the Americans came and arrested him" 18 days ago, says Sabri Kahlal Gomai, dabbing her face with a handkerchief.
Mejorado's brusque tone softens. "In order to get the bad people, sometimes we take innocent people," he explains. "If your son is truly innocent, he will be released soon," he says. "An asef - I'm sorry."
Sitting on a concrete ledge outside the Tikrit police station, patrolman Ali Hussein Jamel narrows his eyes and recalls the night that cooperating with American forces cost his friend a leg.
"A US headquarters was attacked, and they thought it was the [Iraqi] police, so they attacked us. My friend had his right leg amputated," says Mr. Jamel. In all, seven Iraqi patrolmen were injured, provincial police say. Similar tragic mix-ups, such as the accidental killing of 10 Iraqi police by US forces in Fallujah Sept. 12, reinforce the wariness of recruits such as Jamel.
"It's wrong to work with the Americans," he says to the nods of his comrades. "People are shooting at us all the time!"
In Tikrit and elsewhere, such suspicion is hampering cooperation between US forces and the 34,000 Iraqis hired as police nationwide - a force the coalition hopes to double next year. Indeed, US military police also doubt the motives and reliability of their Iraqi counterparts.
Under Saddam Hussein, powerful Iraqi secret police dominated while ordinary cops worked short hours and directed traffic. "We only did small jobs," says Maj. Gen. Muzhir Taha Hamed, chief of the 7,000-strong police force in Salahaddin Province, which includes Tikrit.