Hundreds of Iraqi troops and police armed with AK-47s swarmed through a troubled district of Mosul at dawn Thursday, launching the first major military operation conceived and led by Iraq's new security forces.
More than 600 Iraqi National Guard (ING) troops and city police, backed by an outer cordon of 150 US troops, swept the Al Antezar neighborhood in a house-to-house dragnet, confiscating weapons and detaining several terrorist suspects.
The ambitious operation, ordered by the Nineveh Province governor a day after the transfer of power, amounted to a robust - if at times chaotic - show of force intended to demonstrate that Iraqi authorities are taking security into their own hands.
"Now we have to gain the public trust," says Lt. Col. Ragheed Khalid Mohammed, the jaunty commander of an Iraqi National Guard battalion that took part in the operation. "We need 1,000 friends, and not one enemy."
Indeed, in many respects, the push to secure Mosul against a backdrop of recent terrorist mayhem is emblematic of the struggle for Iraq itself, with fledgling Iraqi forces in a test of wills against car bombers and assassins seeking to shatter public confidence in Iraq's future.
"Clearly it's a dangerous time for Iraqi security forces," says Lt. Col. Gordie Flowers, whose US troops in wheeled Stryker vehicles set up checkpoints on the outskirts of the neighborhood. "It's the irreversible momentum of a cohesive, effective Iraqi security force that threatens the enemy, and that's why this transition could be a dangerous phase."
American commanders here were surprised by the unprecedented scope of the Iraqi operation, which they learned about less than 48 hours in advance. Taking the backseat in a major operation for the first time since the Iraq war began, US forces supplied the Iraqis with detailed maps, attack helicopters, and an outer security cordon, but otherwise served mainly as advisers. A few US officers expressed concern, however, about the potential intrusiveness of the sweep, formally named "Operation Mutual Security," but dubbed by some: "Operation Mosul Lock-Down."
"Depend on God! Move on! Don't be scared!" Col. Nashwan Ahmed Mubarak shouts into a Motorola radio, urging his 250 soldiers forward as dawn breaks a deep blue over a horizon of ramshackle buildings and trash-strewn lots.
A large man with a thick moustache and prone to dramatic gestures, Colonel Mubarak seems to relish being in command of a truly Iraqi-led mission. "We were waiting for this day," he says, as truckloads of his troops fan down dirt roads. "Coalition forces were honest in handing over power."
Yet while Mubarak says his troops are ready "psychologically," he frets over sending them into combat with meager gear. "We're still waiting," he says, "for everything from helmets and body armor to night-vision goggles and binoculars.
Other challenges came with mounting the first large joint operation involving the Iraqi National Guard (ING) and police, as Thursday's sweep showed.
At just before 5 a.m., Mosul police chief Gen. Mohammed Khiary Barhawai, nominally in charge of the operation, pulls up in the lead of a huge convoy of white Iraqi police pickup trucks and strides quickly over to Mubarak.
"You agreed to start the search at 6 o'clock - why are you early?" he demanded. The first of several snafus, it illustrates both the evident tensions between different branches of the new Iraqi security establishment, as well as the complexities they face in coordinating such a large-scale dragnet for the first time.
As the police and forces from two ING battalions sped out through their three separate sectors of the neighborhood, for example, it was soon apparent that each unit was going a different direction. Colonel Flowers, drawing arrows on the map, offered a brief lesson in synchronizing movement - for the next time.
Another debate arose when the police and ING disagreed on whether to confiscate all the weapons found, or to allow each household to keep one for self defense. "If we think they are tricky, we will take the gun, if they seem good, they can keep it," suggested General Barhawai, in a blue cap and shirt.
And while the Iraqi forces took pains to treat neighborhood residents respectfully - knocking on doors, allowing the man of the house to assist the search, and being gentle with women and children - they promised draconian measures against lurking enemies.
"This neighborhood is infested with terrorists and criminals," says Barhawai. "If they resist, they will be killed." Moreover, he made it clear that in the aftermath of a string of car bombings June 24 that left 29 of his men dead and 70 injured last week, his men were looking for revenge.
It was one of the worst terrorist attacks in memory in this northern metropolis of 2 million people, with four bombs going off simultaneously, killing 75 people in all.
"The explosion was huge - the man sitting here found himself by the front door," says Col. Kasim Mohammed al-Jasim, commander of a police precinct where two stations were bombed, killing 20 of his men. "There were dead bodies all around. Terrible was not enough to describe the situation," he said. Many police on duty fled, losing control of the station. Criminals broke out of their cells and stole dozens of firearms and police uniforms, as well as radios. US and Iraqi troops were called in to retake one station and a neaby mosque, firing three TOW missiles at the buildings in the course of a firefight.
"We can expect death at any moment, but it is our job," says Colonel Jasim, summing up the feelings of many police here.
The escalation of terrorist attacks is part of a trend of rising violence in Mosul, which has also seen more crime, kidnappings, and assassinations, says Maj. Ahmed Fowad, an investigator for the Iraqi police here. Strikes on US forces here have also increased in recent months, numbering several each day, officials say.
On April 9, a demonstration turned violent and insurgents attempted to overrun the city government. Many police abandoned their posts, and US troops killed 40 to 50 fighters in quelling the unrest. The disarray that day prompted the creation of a Mosul Joint Command Center to coordinate security forces in a crisis. It includes an emergency broadcast system, hotline, and command post that citizens can reach via a Yahoo e-mail account.
During Thursday's sweep, police chief Barhawai left little doubt what was motivating his men. "They want to revenge the terrorists," he said. "Some of them are wearing blood-stained clothes to remind them of their fallen brothers," he said.
The Iraqi forces had their chance at around 8 a.m., when a brief firefight broke out when Iraqi National Guard forces approached a run-down home that turned out to be an enemy safehouse. Two men inside fired on the soldiers, who quickly regrouped to storm the location.
"I went inside the house and saw the bad guys, three were hiding behind a door and a desk," says ING Capt. Alaa Faisel, a Kurdish peshmerga fighter trained by US Special Forces. "I fired a few shots, and they put their hands up," says Captain Alaa, who looks uncannily like his American counterparts and wears a Special Forces tab on his shoulder.
In all, the four-hour sweep netted two Iranians suspected of belonging to the terrorist group Ansar al Islam, one Kurdish fighter, and three Iraqis. Along with the seizing of weapons such as heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, the operation spurred much self-congratulation among the Iraqi forces. "We're a team. We're in the same boat!" said Colonel Mohammed, beaming even as the ING and police disputed what to do with a weapons-laden car.
Iraqi residents, meanwhile, seemed generally not to mind the sweep, and some even welcomed the appearance of Iraqi forces. "I feel that my pride and my country is back to me now," says Rafa Sultan, a day laborer with 10 children, as he watches the Iraqi soldiers from his front gate.
With their incomes rising, consumption increasing, and unemployment down to an estimated 35 percent, residents here say security is their main problem. "When Saddam Hussein was here, we didn't have anything except for security. Now, we have everything except security. If we get that, things will be better," says a neighbor Mahmood Ahmed.