Thursday, January 14, 2010

Fort Lewis troops let Iraqis take the lead

U.S. soldiers provide backup as Iraqis search homes in village SCOTT FONTAINE; The News Tribune Last updated: January 14th, 2010 12:20 AM (PST) MARFU, Iraq – The Iraqi man lied to the Iraqi army officer about having no weapons. The officer did not like it, and let him know. As Fort Lewis and Iraqi soldiers searched for weapons caches and criminal suspects in a village of mud-brick homes in rural Diyala province, the Iraqi commander vented his anger. Iraqi soldiers had searched the man’s storage shed and discovered dozens of 9mm rounds hidden in a grain sack. That made him the target of the commander’s tirade. “You lied to us!” he yelled, shoving the bullets in his face. “Why would you lie to us? You will not lie to us!” Iraqi soldiers later bound the man’s hands in flexicuffs and blindfolded him. He was one of three people they hauled away during Monday’s early-morning search involving troops from Fort Lewis’ 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. The battalion – part of 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division – is on its third deployment to Iraq and is operating in a country seeing its lowest levels of violence since the American invasion in 2003. Monday’s operation was only the fourth for the battalion’s Comanche Company since it arrived in August. In past years, Fort Lewis Stryker soldiers were often the ones interacting directly – sometimes intensely – with the locals, aided by Arabic language interpreters. Now, in the midst of the U.S.’s phased pullout from the country, Iraqi soldiers take the lead. Much of the 1-23 battalion’s deployment has been spent meeting community and tribal leaders and training the Iraqi army in Diyala province, the northern region historically rife with Sunni-Shia and Arab-Kurd tensions. “This is definitely a change of pace for guys who have deployed before,” company commander Capt. Clint Kuhlman said. “It’s just a different assignment nowadays.” The joint patrol rolled into Marfu with a wanted list of 23 names, seven with outstanding warrants for terrorism charges. Iraqi army and police had received tips from residents complaining about militia members in the area. The village sits several miles from the perimeter of Forward Operating Base Grizzly, where the battalion is located. A convoy of 12 Stryker vehicles and one Mine Resistant Ambushed Protected vehicle, loaded with a mix of American service members and Iraqi soldiers, left Grizzly just before sunrise. They positioned themselves outside the village and were joined by Iraqi army and police vehicles about 10 minutes later. The sound of the Strykers approaching forced several villagers to flee before the soldiers could set up the cordon. Five men ran from their homes into the nearby palm groves, but U.S. commanders back at FOB Grizzly watched the runaways on a live video feed provided by a drone circling overhead. Officers at Grizzly transmitted their coordinates to troops in Marfu. Two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were diverted from farther north and circled over the men, their rotor wash covering them with dust. Iraqi soldiers detained the runaways but later released them because their names weren’t on the wanted list. A sixth person drove away before the Americans could secure the cordon. Soldiers tracked his vehicle using aerial surveillance and patched the information over to the Iraqi police, who caught up with and questioned him. American and Iraqi soldiers stopped foot and vehicle traffic coming and going. About another 60 Iraqi troops entered the village, accompanied by a squad of U.S. soldiers, to search the homes and question the residents. The American troops stood back as the Iraqis entered the houses. “It’s been made very clear to us – they do not want us to enter the homes, and we don’t enter the homes,” said platoon leader Lt. Matt Salmi, a DuPont resident originally from New Jersey. “We want people to know this is an Iraqi operation looking for Iraqi suspects.” The hidden bullets in the grain bag were the patrol’s first discovery. Soldiers ripped into the man’s other burlap sacks, most containing wool, in an ultimately unsuccessful search for other weapons. “Right now, this guy apparently just has some pistol rounds,” said Staff Sgt. Kurtis Gibson, a squad leader. “But hiding them in a grain bag? That’s just sketchy.” The Iraqi soldiers detained the man but eventually let him go because a warrant wasn’t pending. They detained seven villagers but let all but three go: two who were wanted on terrorism charges and another who didn’t have identity papers, a crime under Iraqi law. Other troops fanned out, walking past feral dogs and livestock, and questioned residents. Those with more than one AK-47 and one magazine – the maximum allowed by Iraqi law – had their weapons confiscated. The village’s muhktar lost his illegally modified Kalashnikov. But one man told Iraqi soldiers he worked for the city council and was allowed to keep his three shotguns. Across the village, another platoon found two of the seven suspects wanted on terrorism. The Americans, meanwhile, stayed in the background. “This has been what it’s like,” said Gibson, a 27-year-old Steilacoom resident. “They search, and we’re nearby in case they need help. And they never really ask for too much help once we get on the ground.”

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