December 26, 2005


U.S. Seeks To Escape Brutal Cycle In Iraqi City: 3rd Try at Pullout Depends on Police (Ann Scott Tyson, December 26, 2005, Washington Post

Using bulldozers and armored earthmovers, Army engineers encircled Samarra with a wall of dirt, sealing off the many small roads that insurgents used to move weapons into the city. Signs warned that anyone trying to cross the berm would be met with deadly force -- and some were, according to battalion officers.

The wall sent a panic through Samarra that a major offensive was imminent. "We helped spread that rumor," Walsh explained, "to get people to leave, so citizens of Samarra would be more inclined to give up the insurgents. Cooperate, or we'll clear the city." Tens of thousands fled, reducing Samarra's population to about 70,000. Half the working police force quit.

Meanwhile, in a change of tactics, soldiers began taking up unpredictable, covert positions in houses and abandoned buildings. "We got more sneaky," said 1st Lt. Adam Hurley, 24, of Raleigh, N.C., whose soldiers shot insurgents as they were placing artillery rounds in freshly dug holes.

"We had to do some deep-seated military operations," Walsh said. "We had to take a step back versus going forward. We took one step back, instead of destroying the city."

After Samarra was walled in, attacks in the city dropped sharply, from seven or eight a day last summer to one or two now, according to the military. Since October, only one roadside bomb has exploded on the main portion of highway running past Samarra, and there has been only one car bomb, in contrast with two or three a month previously.

The security has come with a cost. Long lines of vehicles sit idle at the city's three checkpoints, where crossing can take as long as an hour. "It completely disrupted the city market," said Hurley, adding that farmers especially suffered. While thousands of residents have returned to the city, the population is still down by about a fourth from a year ago.

Now, the U.S. military is embarking on a gradual plan to cut its forces and pull out of the city -- a plan that ultimately depends on a local police force that trainers say is undermanned and years away from being up to the task.

In a new police headquarters in Samarra's barricaded government Green Zone, a block from the old one that was gutted by insurgent bombs, a few police officers sat around on the roof. Only one sits in a guard tower, his hands folded on his lap. Beds with blankets were situated under an awning, and Islamic prayers wafted from a cassette player.

Two battalions of special police commandos returned to Samarra from Baghdad in December to bolster the local police but plan only a short stay. "Right now the police are capable of defending themselves," the commandos' chief, Col. Bashar Abdullah Hussein, asserted between cell phone calls in his office. The commandos will be in Samarra "not more than three months," he said.

But Capt. Barry Humphrey, who trains local police, says the vast majority of policemen don't come to work, and those who do often put in only a few hours. Several hundred idle police are on the payroll under a patronage system tolerated by the current police chief.

"The biggest problem we have so far is accountability of people," said Humphrey, 30, of Montgomery, Ala. With competent leaders, he estimated it will take two years to generate the planned local police force of 1,200 men.

On a foot patrol Dec. 2 in a violent part of Samarra called Abu Bas, Humphrey was with a police patrol when two men in black robes and head scarves flew around the corner and opened fire. They shot one policeman in the forehead and shoulder. But instead of taking cover, five police officers went forward in pursuit. Ultimately, the attackers were caught trying to escape through a checkpoint. To Humphrey, it was a small step forward.

"This time," he said, "some of them did shoot back."

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 26, 2005 8:20 AM
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