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.

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.

Today, US MPs must push recruits to work beyond 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., mount night patrols, and aggressively investigate crimes. Seeking to change the "military mind-set" of Iraqi trainees, they are spending $50 million to outfit the Salahaddin police with new uniforms, handcuffs in place of rags, and pistols instead of AK-47s. Moreover, in a three-week class, they are teaching Iraqi recruits basic ethics, such as refusing "gratuities" for their service and never forcing confessions by torture.

"There were a few who really thought torture was part of the process. If you couldn't get the information by interrogation, you just beat it out of them," said Sgt, 1st Class Michael Robledo of the 720th Military Police Battalion.

Some Iraqi police in Tikrit welcome the training and new power to enforce laws fairly. "Now we make the decisions," says Iraqi 1st Lt. Basel Misfer. "Before the war, Saddam Hussein's relatives were untouchable."

Others, however, tick off drawbacks to the US-Iraqi partnership.

"It's too dangerous, [we] want to stay alive," says Fadhel Mesher Mohammed, adding about that 30 of his colleagues have quit the Tikrit force. Several police suggested they patrol separately from US forces, to avoid being targeted as traitors. Police pay, ranging from $60 to $120 a month, is too low to compensate the risk, Mr. Mohammed complained. Moreover, he's lost the hefty "bonuses" from the resale of confiscated smuggled goods under the old regime.

The bottom line, says provincial chief Hamed: "Iraqis don't like Americans telling them what to do."

To counter such sentiments, US commanders have at times adopted Machiavellian tactics. North of Tikrit in Bayji, they set up a new police headquarters next to a US civil-military center. "Now if [guerrillas] shoot RPGs [rocket-propelled-grenades] at us at night, Iraqis are in the line of fire, so they have a great incentive to go out and find these guys," said one Army officer.

When Capt. Mike D'Annunzio wrote home from Iraq, the first books he asked for were "Catch-22" and "Through the Looking-Glass."

The novels sustain the Harvard-trained Army lawyer in his often maddening real-world job: Reforming the justice system in Tikrit, where for decades a dictator's word was law.

Figuring out who's who in a court system dominated by ex-Baath Party members is one of Captain D'Annunzio's hardest tasks. Salahaddin Province, with at least 600,000 people, boasts four times more party members than any other. "They're all thugs - just better or worse thugs. It's kind of like dealing with a mafia family," says, the tall, bespectacled D'Annunzio.

Still, D'Annunzio realizes the courts could not function without the provinces' 52 experienced judges - all former Baathists. The same dilemma exists with teachers, university professors, and doctors across Iraq. Like other US officers, D'Annunzio favors retaining benign regime holdovers whose technical skills keep basic institutions running.

One of those holdovers is Salah Khadar al-Jubouri, the province's silver-haired chief judge. Sitting behind a large wooden desk in his spacious Tikrit office, he explains that he had to join the party to attend law school. Now, he says, he is eager to deliver true justice. "And above me, there is a higher judge - God," he says.

Mr. Salah and other judges openly oppose some US-imposed legal reforms, such as the suspension of the death penalty. "If I don't impose the death penalty [in a murder case] the family of the victim will take revenge on their own," explains felony court Judge Shahb Ahmad Khader. "It will be like the jungle, the tiger eating the rabbit and the lion eating the mouse."

The judges also cling to old habits of patronage. As D'Annunzio leaves one meeting with Salah, a court employee corners him in the dirt parking lot. "The chief judge needs a new car. This one is not suitable for his position," he says pointedly. "You will do your best?"

Still, when civilian occupation authorities in Baghdad advised D'Annunzio to fire four Salahaddin judges, including Salah, he hesitated. The dismissal order amounted to "taking someone's political views and using it as grounds for removing them from office - in America, that would be unconstitutional," he countered. Besides, he said, "they've done everything I ask."

D'Annunzio and his interpreter scoured the judges' personnel files. They found no evidence against two of the judges. But documents showed Salah and another judge ranked within the top four tiers of the Baath Party, meaning they were barred from public sector jobs. Soon after, he fired Salah.

"[He] was upset but reacted in a very professional, almost eerily dignified way," says D'Annunzio. "At the end of the conversation, he offered me a candy from his dish as he had on every previous visit. His hand was trembling as he passed the dish."

An Army convoy rolls past fields and orchards to a gated farmhouse across the Tigris River from Tikrit. Ostensibly, the occasion is a social luncheon between US officers and influential tribesmen. Camouflaged by the grilled chicken, steaming pita bread and watermelon, however, some intense politicking is underway.

Capt. Dave Owens, the Salahaddin governor's US Army liaison, is on a mission to assuage the ego of Col. Jassam Hussein Jabara al-Jubouri.

The colonel, a key US ally, has been "ill" for two days and absent from his job as provincial security chief. In fact, he's threatening to resign over the failure of the US-appointed governor to fire the lieutenant governor, whom the colonel had investigated and accused of corruption.

Captain Owens brings excellent news. The governor, "advised" by Owens, fired his lieutenant that very morning. A wide smile lifts the colonel's black beard.

Hovering in a spotless white tunic, he urges the soldiers to partake heartily of the picnic spread before them on colorful quilts. He seems delighted as the Americans, literally, eat out of his hands. Back at work the next day, he kisses Owens on the cheek and hands him a string of blue worry beads.

Colonel Jubouri's power play illustrates how large tribes such as the Jubouri are making political inroads in US-occupied Iraq. The governor and police chief, to name a few, also belong to the Jubouri tribe. As part of Iraq's elite, such men are valuable sources of intelligence for the US military. Yet they also have a greater stake than other groups in excusing former Baathists and maintaining the status quo.

US commanders assert that they can replace at will the top provincial officials, whom they appointed. "They serve at our pleasure, and at any time we can have them removed," says Col. James Hickey, commander of the Fourth Infantry Division's 1st Brigade, which oversees a large region including Tikrit.

Yet a more symbiotic relationship appears to exist with the Jubouri tribe. Members of the tribe attempted to assassinate Hussein in January 1990, leading to a wave of arrests, retirements, and executions. Still, like many in Iraq, the tribe also benefited from preferential treatment and official sinecures under Hussein.

Gov. Hussein Jabara al-Jubouri, a former Republican Guard general, seems to relish his new job. "I used to be a very tough commander, but now I'm very peaceful politician. People say bad things about me, and I don't care," he says. He laughs off the RPG, small arms, and mortar strikes on his high-rise Tikrit headquarters as "weak attacks." Unbuttoning his shirt, he shows he wears no bulletproof vest.

Colonel Jubouri displays a similar bravado. He walks with a swagger that befits his personality, but actually resulted from a head wound sustained in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. In 1991, he claims, he broke the arm of one of Hussein's personal bodyguards, who had opened fire during a tribal funeral. "Even Saddam threatened me because of that," he recalls. Today, Jubouri heads a special security force that protects the governor and reports on guerrilla activity. Coincidentally, the bodyguard he fought with was detained by US troops the day before.

Both men stress the need to co-opt ex-regime members who, if idle, could threaten the coalition. The province took the lead in distributing payments to the Iraqi Army, including 16,000 former soldiers in Tikrit. It made "exceptions" to allow 1,500 Baath Party members to retain their jobs. Finally, it assigned a deputy governor to promote "reconciliation commissions" - a move favored by some senior US commanders in Iraq.

Colonel Jubouri asserts that even members of Iraq's former intelligence agencies, such as the feared Mukhabarat, should be forgiven and employed. "Some security officers have asked me for a job," he says, as attendants serve tea. "There are 100,000 of these people in all Iraq - If we don't pay them and win them as friends, they will be our enemy."

Once Iraq has a new government, Jubouri says he hopes "our [American] friends will leave peacefully and return home."

As for his aspirations? "I would like to be part of the future Salahaddin government, such as lieutenant governor," he says, smiling over his role in ousting the man in that job. "There is an empty position now."

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