U.S. forces have launched a fresh campaign to root out anti-coalition insurgents
in Iraq by encircling three important towns on the country's border with Syria,
and searching from house to house. The forces have already rounded up hundreds
of suspects. Some U.S. soldiers are giving money to households that comply with
a rule that allows them to have just one weapon.
It is midday near Iraq's border with Syria, and Lieutenant Colonel Joe Buche
has just handed a $20 bill to a man whose house has passed inspection. The
colonel's troops have just finished their search for weapons and insurgents
in the house.
The homeowner wants to know why he was not paid for a similar search two
"Just let them know that the $20 is a gift," he said. "I'm not required to
give $20 to anybody. So that is a gift, it is not a salary."
Even with the financial incentive, the army acknowledges that the reaction
of most residents in Husaybah and other towns along the border with Syria has
been mixed. One reason for local opposition is that the house-to-house searches
began a week ago, during the holy month of Ramadan, and continued through the
In addition, residents claim that most of those arrested, handcuffed, and
marched through the town to a detention center in the desert have nothing to
do with the insurgency.
This resident, Hala Khalaf, complains to the soldiers that they are taking
men and leaving only women and children in some households. She claims these
men are not fighting U.S. forces.
The U.S.-appointed mayor of Husaybah, Raja Nawaf, says that the house searches
and the added military force used in his town are raising new tensions and,
in some cases he says, fueling the insurgency.
"I think the American Army has increased their force here," he said. "Of
course, there is action and there is reaction. This is my opinion and many
people are arrested. Many families have lost a son. Some people have been killed
by a mistake."
Senior U.S. commanders defend their tactics as a means of closing down Iraq's
border with Syria to foreign fighters - including members of Osama bin Laden's
al-Qaida terrorist network. They say the outsiders try to use border towns
as the first stop on their way into Iraq's violent Sunni Triangle region, near
But even here in the north, the situation is tense and dangerous. The local
police chief, who was working with the coalition troops, was assassinated in
October, marking the beginning of a sharp increase in attacks on coalition
forces and Iraqis who help them.
Major General Charles Swannack Jr., commanding general of the U.S. Army's
82nd Airborne Division, explained the troops' mission as he stepped off his
Black Hawk helicopter to review the operations in Husaybah.
"This part of the operation on foreign fighters that might come across the
border, you know, this is a component of what we have to do here," said General
Swannack. "[We need to fight] not only the former regime loyalists, but also
tackle the foreign fighters. And this operation focused specifically on trying
to get the foreign fighters coming across the border, or on the rat lines -
as we call them - heading down to Baghdad. "
General Swannack listens to a briefing from his field commanders, who tell
him their forces have rounded up about 10 suspicious foreigners along the border
in the last four days.
He gets more good news from Major Collin Fortier, about improving relations
between local residents and U.S. servicemen.
"The 20 dollars, it sounds really hokey, but I think it is starting to sway
the people, and the presence of the soldiers and the way the soldiers are conducting
it," said Major Fortier. "In fact, down here, the soldiers got invited in for
tea and crumpets. That is a good thing, because we will get some intel [intelligence]
out of those guys."
Ground commanders stress the importance of their operation, but say they
also try to listen to the residents of Husaybah. Lieutenant Colonel Buche says
he is trying to be sensitive to local needs, while also following his orders.
He says local residents complained about the curfew the army imposed, saying
they needed to be out of their homes after curfew in order to pray in the mosque.
He promised to ask his commanders to ease the curfew, if possible.
"And I understand that," said Lieutenant Colonel Bushe. "Prayer is very important
in my religion, too. If there is no violence against my soldiers, I will ask
my superior, my commander, to change the curfew, so that we can go to prayer."
After a day in the field listening to a long list of complaints from residents,
Lieutenant Colonel Buche gives his weary battalion commanders a pep talk.
"If we have the right mix of compassion and aggression, the enemy here can't
win," he said. "And my hat's off to you, because you are doing a great, great
It's not an easy job, but the soldiers and officers say they're doing their
best to fight the insurgency while not making life too difficult for the local