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More Iraqis accept their US-trained forces

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 12, 2004



BAGHDAD

Accused of being collaborators with American occupation forces, Iraqi policemen, guards, and soldiers have endured ridicule, threats, and targeted violence that have left hundreds dead over the past year.

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But there are signs that hard-nosed attitudes toward the country's embattled, US-trained security forces are beginning to soften.

There is no way to tell the breadth of this apparent change in popular thinking. But some dozen security personnel in Baghdad and the flash point of Fallujah report that the views of their fellow Iraqis - tired of the continual burn of insecurity, car bombs, and kidnappings - are shifting.

"It is beginning to change," says Emad Abbas Qassem, a lieutenant in the Facility Protection Service (FPS), at his post outside a central Baghdad education ministry office. "It's not only the people, but my wife, my family and brothers tell me: 'Go to work and do your duty.' They used to be so afraid."

Indeed, the number of targeted attacks and casualties against security forceshas dropped in recent weeks, relative to previous months. At least 350 Iraqi police were killed in the first year of occupation; that rate dropped dramatically to roughly a dozen killed during April. Lieutenant Qassem estimates a 50 percent drop in the past month alone. "Because we were trained by the Americans, [Iraqis] dealt with us like we were Americans," he says.

US officers issued orders for the Iraqis to be on heightened alert since the Abu Ghraib prison photographs surfaced, but so far there appears to have been little retribution aimed at Iraqi forces.

"Now the people are beginning to understand that [Iraqi forces] are serving the country; before they thought they were all agents serving the Americans," says Shakir Jafar Jassim, a member of the local district council who has been recommended by a local US Army unit to serve as an FPS captain.

One event that has helped change the dynamic was the insurgent fighting that rocked Fallujah throughout April, followed by the introduction of joint Iraqi and US force patrols there - part of the US military's attempt to broker a solution.

"The reaction of people changed when [Iraqi forces] went to Fallujah, and were asked by Fallujans to protect them there," says Mr. Jassim. "Most attacks and car bombs came from Fallujah. But when [Iraqi forces] went to Fallujah, they realized they were there for them, not just for Americans."

A US Marine convoy made a test run through Fallujah Monday, the first of its kind since the weeks-long siege was dismantled 10 days ago. Not a shot was fired; US top brass Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commander of the First Marine Division, met with the mayor.

Members of that Fallujah force say that attitudes are softening even in their backwater city 30 miles west of Baghdad, where residents supported Saddam Hussein, and where numerous Baath Party officials and former intelligence agents have sought sanctuary since the fall of the regime.

Many security-force members in Fallujah refused to fight insurgents alongside US Marines in early April, a surprise that - after months of training - amounted to the "single most disappointing" breakdown in cooperation, in the words of one senior marine officer.

The Fallujah units of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC), the seed of the new post-Hussein Army, admit that most bowed out of the April fighting after evacuating their families from the city and receiving threats from insurgents.

"Before we suffered with [these threats], now it's good," says Khamiz Mahdi Saleh, an ICDC private in an oversized uniform during an interview at the Fallujah train station, where his unit kept guard alongside a Marine platoon.

"Before, the people of Fallujah did not know our job. All they knew is that we worked with the Americans, so we were bad," says Private Saleh. "Now they know the job - they see us taking over from the Americans, and they look well on us."

Though lightly armed, at best, the ICDC forces here say they are treated with greater respect now, and are even allowed to pray in the mosques. Before, they say, their uniforms alone led to expulsion.

"The people don't have any [negative] business with us," says Majid Kamel Mohamed, a private from Fallujah who joined the unit four months ago. "We do our job, and people wanted this, because they wanted a stop to the fighting. They want peace."

Maj. Ahmed Hamadi Khalaf says threats have been intense, and that "many people" have been pinpointed in cities throughout southern Iraq.

"I told my family that I am going to the new Army, to help save the country," says Major Khalaf, wearing eagles on his epaulets at the Fallujah rail station. "I've had [threats] before, but I don't care. These guys want to cause trouble in Fallujah, so it is not a safe place."

Some proof of the changing attitude is evident in the calm that has blanketed Fallujah, since the pull back of US Marine units. The ICDC has taken to the streets and manned checkpoints, with often little more than a few coils of barbed wire and an Iraqi flag.

Just as laid back, the FPS guards in central Baghdad continue to search Iraqis entering the education building. They were attacked there twice last year, when US forces kept a permanent presence.

US Army units now visit every couple of days - as they did Tuesday morning. They parked three Humvees in the lot and launched foot patrols.

"Things started changing in the last month," says Qassem. "Now people are encouraging me, because they want protection for sewage lines and water plants.

"The change is happening," echoes Jassim Kadhim, another guard. "My mother used to stay awake at night, worried about me. Now my mother is more comfortable, because the Americans left this neighborhood. It's safer."

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