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US shifts to war footing in Iraq's 'Sunni triangle'

By , / November 10, 2003


In at least one troublesome area of Iraq, the US military is shifting from peacekeeping and nationbuilding to the work it is designed and trained to do: fight wars.

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Responding to attacks that have killed 150 of their brethren during the six-month occupation, American forces over the weekend adopted a more aggressive approach to the so-called "Sunni triangle" - the region north and west of Baghdad where most attacks against the occupation are occurring.

US authorities are wagering that security-starved Iraqis won't protest the crackdown in the triangle, a focal point of support for the otherwise widely hated former regime. Tikritis are particularly resented by the Iraqi public, since most of the top officials in Saddam Hussein's feared domestic security network were recruited from the area.

"The Americans should be stronger; they have to realize the criminals they are dealing with and treat them accordingly," says Rajha Flayh, a woman shopping in Baghad's Kadhimiya Shiite district. "Everybody I know is hungry for security."

So far the approach is having the desired effect. Soldiers at the 4th Infantry Division headquarters in Tikrit say nightly mortar attacks against them have stopped since Friday night.

"What a show of force does is establish that we will not tolerate attacks ... from anyone who is trying to keep Iraq in its past,'' says Maj. Josslyn Aberle, spokeswoman for the 4th Infantry, which oversees military operations in the triangle. "Eventually, they're going to realize that they're bringing nothing but trouble to their families and their tribes."

Potential pitfalls

But some Iraqis say the harsh tactics could backfire - especially in communities like Tikrit, Hussein's hometown of 400,000 that was transformed from one of Iraq's poorest to one of its richest under his rule.

"The Americans' tactics are going to breed an even bigger reaction against them,'' says Ali Malik, a police major in Tikrit. "Everyone in this town loved Saddam. Their patrols just make things worse. I have a 3-year old son, and even he spits and throws rocks when they drive past now."

Facing violence with more violence could spiral into a cycle of retaliations that would call into question America's ability to quell the resistance. Worse, observers say, it could sow seeds of doubt about the chances of achieving in Iraq a new sense of authority through a democratic regime.

"The Americans have toppled the previous regime, but they have been unable to install a central pole of authority, and that leaves the Iraqi people in a dilemma," says Muhammed al-Da'mi, a political thinker and Baghdad University professor.

"They still have hope that one era is ended, but they see the other is unable to be born. The intensified fighting raises the fear that somehow the old could still come back."

Sending a message

On Saturday, US warplanes dropped 500-pound bombs on three empty houses on the Tigris River bluff where a Blackhawk helicopter was downed by ground fire Friday, killing all six US soldiers aboard. It was the first bombing raid since President Bush declared an end to major hostilities on May 1.