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

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.

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.

Major Aberle say the attacks on the empty houses, one a half-finished villa for Tikrit's police chief, sent a message to insurgents that the US can bring overwhelming force to bear. Some of the buildings were used as safehouses for earlier attacks, she said, but are usually deserted.

Tanks are rolling more frequently through Tikrit and nearby Fallujah, where two US soldiers were killed in a roadside blast Saturday. Infantry patrols and house searches have been stepped up. In Tikrit, 16 men have been arrested since Saturday. On Sunday, at least one truck rolled into the Tikrit base with bound and hooded captives, joining the thousands of Iraqis already held by the coalition.

Aberle says that more and more Tikritis are upset with the insurgents and stepping forward with intelligence about their activities, and that she sees signs the insurgency is on the ropes.

She says US intelligence indicates that insurgents were paid just a few hundred dollars for each attack when the occupation began, but that rate has now risen as high as $5,000, an indication she says of increased fear of consequences.

"We are going to take this fight to the enemy," said Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who was in Baghdad briefly over the weekend to "bring a message of momentum" to the Iraqi people. The US is "sobered" by the security problem facing it in Iraq, he said, adding that "we have a solid plan to go after and get these people who are killing us and killing Iraqis."

Tough talk and action from the Americans is what a growing number of Iraqis say they want - especially among those who feel that the insurgency is deepening both the sense of insecurity and the foreign occupation, under which almost everyone is chafing.

Hussein Jaleel Al Boamer, a jeweler in Baghdad's Kadhimiya neighborhood, says a large number of Iraqis take some cathartic pleasure in seeing Hussein's hometown under attack. "They know the people [attacking the Coalition] are the ones who lived with privileges for so long while victimizing everyone else. And now they are responding violently to losing their meal ticket."

Sheikh Sherji Gayed, a vigorous tribal elder, is one of the losers. From a Sunni Arab tribe that had good ties with the old regime, his extended family was granted rich farmland near the northern town of Mosul that was seized from ethnic Kurds.

After the fall of the regime, Kurdish guerrillas gave his family 24 hours to get off the land. Twenty of them fled south to Tikrit with what they could carry, and now they're squatting in a half-finished building about 400 yards away from one of the houses the US attacked on Friday.

Gayed says his family huddled together, the children in tears, for most of Friday night as the American bombing was carried out.

"I support the resistance, even though they're making it tough for us now,'' he says. "I admire their pride - I can't abide occupiers."

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