BAGHDAD, Iraq In a move that U.S. commanders hope will push more day to day
peacekeeping responsibilities over to Iraqis themselves, the Army is organizing
raids to hunt down terrorists using overwhelming numbers of local paramilitary
On Monday, about 35 members of the Florida National Guard provided security
and intelligence for an operation into Baghdad conducted by about 80 members of
the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.
American troops hope such operations will be steps toward a nominally normal
Iraq. The occupying coalition has spent $3.3 billion in tax dollars to
establish the defense corps as well as an army, border patrol and other
"This is a complete role reversal," said Capt. Rodney Sanchez, commander of
Company A, 3rd Battalion, 124th Infantry of the Florida National Guard.
Typically, the number of Iraqis would mirror the number of Americans on such a
mission. Ramping up the participation of Iraqis essentially doubled the
"We're not there to run the mission," Sanchez said inside his compound, a
former officers club used by the Republican Guard. "We're there to just
The area of Baghdad in which the guardsmen operate is relatively tiny, and
relatively safe. Sanchez, a Tallahassee policeman in civilian life, stresses
walking the streets rather than rolling around sheathed in the beige desert
armor of a Humvee.
"Back home we don't normally fight terrorists," Sanchez said. "But these guys
are out here, and we're like beat cops."
This hometown approach may be particularly appropriate for the fledgling
Iraqi force. It's made up of otherwise normal Iraqis who may live alongside the
homes and families they search.
"Ninety percent of what we do is on foot," said 1st Sgt. Todd Simmons. "That
has allowed us to know the neighborhood, know the people in the neighborhood."
That's also meant some success. On Christmas Day, locals tipped off soldiers
to multiple explosives just outside the compound.
On this Monday evening mission, troops searched for someone believed to
support the bloody resistance that has killed scores of soldiers and civilians
through the use of improvised explosives, car bombs and grenades. About 30
rigged explosives have been found in Sanchez's sector. One of his men, Spc.
Robert Allen Wise, died Nov. 12 after someone blew up a mortar shell as his
These incidents always weigh on the minds of soldiers during raids, no matter
how routine. Simmons said there are just too many places on Baghdad's
trash-strewn streets to hide a bomb.
"We don't expect [resistance], but we always plan for it," Sanchez said.
"We're looking for a specific person and we don't know which house he's in."
The captain's smaller number of men headed outside. The Iraqis broke into two
groups, each platoon taunting the other with catcalls. They cheered. They sang.
"Saddam no good," offered one of these men, Pvt. Ali Abbas. "He killed my
brother." Abbas thanked the United States and President Bush for ousting the
"My family thanks you. I thank you."
Not everyone agrees with Abbas, and this makes his job difficult and
Unlike the guardsmen, the Iraqis have no fortress in which to sleep come
evening. They simply return to their families. Some cover their faces in
scarves or ski masks so that terrorists won't know who they are.
Soon the men marched and the black sky shuddered with the sound of helicopter
rotors. The Americans kept to the perimeter; the Iraqis massed along the
street. Drivers stared. It was not a stealth operation.
Soon it began and the Iraqis used bolt cutters to open a gate. Inside, the
Iraqis and U.S. troops found apartment dwellers armed like the Republican
Guard. Everyone had an AK-47. This, it turned out, is actually normal.
Sanchez asked one harried man, apparently a building manager, about one of
the guns. It's for security, the man replied. Each household had only the
number of weapons permitted. Sanchez asked the Iraqis to ease up on kicking in
The residents kept their rifles. The helmets left.
The company marched again through streets shiny-slick with puddles and lined
with squarish brick and concrete houses. They knocked on one door and a scarved
woman answered. A television flickered inside and the troops stepped around a
living room strewn with toys.
They then walked out, waved, smiled and kept going.
They banged and clanged against two huge iron gates, turquoise and heavy, but
the threshold remained fast. An older man in a greatcoat and tie eventually
turned up. He offered to fetch his machine gun and pistol.
"Sometimes they're a little overly helpful," said Sgt. 1st Class James
Gilleon. "They'll put out a weapon, and you're like, Whoa-hoa! I'll find it.'
The man, the owner of the house, told Gilleon he is a former diplomat. His
daughter lives in San Francisco.
"That's great," Gilleon replied.
The retired diplomat did his best to be diplomatic.
"You do very well," he said of the search. "It's for my sake."
The man joked that his Aladdin fairy tale gates could keep out anything, save
a tank. He knew full well the soldiers, of course, could arrange that.
If doors didn't open, the soldiers and Iraqi paramilitary troops knocked them
in or did their best.
"We've had a lot of success with sledgehammers," said Sanchez, the captain.
They'll often nudge the gate with a Humvee first.
If someone seems legitimately out for the evening, the soldiers still bust
in, but take before-and-after pictures and leave a note asking for the bill.
"You try to do as little damage as possible," said Sgt. Jerry Walden. "But
you gotta do what you gotta do."
At its end, the joint raid netted only the few automatic rifles the ones
troops returned to their owners and an intelligence tip the coalition already
But before it was finished, once the street opened wider and brighter, people
gawked at the soldiers and paramilitary Iraqis. They waved from shops selling
eggs, soft drinks and carpets. A boy soon zipped along the march on his
Despite the masks, despite the rifles, no one seemed afraid.
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