Tough New Tactics by U.S. Tighten Grip on Iraq Towns (NY TIMES) By DEXTER FILKINS ABU HISHMA, Iraq 12/07/03)
NEW YORK TIMES
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ABU HISHMA, Iraq, Dec. 6 — As the guerrilla war against Iraqi
insurgents intensifies, American soldiers have begun wrapping entire
villages in barbed wire.
In selective cases, American soldiers are demolishing buildings
thought to be used by Iraqi attackers. They have begun imprisoning
the relatives of suspected guerrillas, in hopes of pressing the
insurgents to turn themselves in.
The Americans embarked on their get-tough strategy in early November,
goaded by what proved to be the deadliest month yet for American
forces in Iraq, with 81 soldiers killed by hostile fire. The response
they chose is beginning to echo the Israeli counterinsurgency
campaign in the occupied territories.
So far, the new approach appears to be succeeding in diminishing the
threat to American soldiers. But it appears to be coming at the cost
of alienating many of the people the Americans are trying to win
over. Abu Hishma is quiet now, but it is angry, too.
In Abu Hishma, encased in a razor-wire fence after repeated attacks
on American troops, Iraqi civilians line up to go in and out, filing
through an American-guarded checkpoint, each carrying an
identification card printed in English only.
"If you have one of these cards, you can come and go," coaxed Lt.
Col. Nathan Sassaman, the battalion commander whose men oversee the
village, about 50 miles north of Baghdad. "If you don´t have one of
these cards, you can´t."
The Iraqis nodded and edged their cars through the line. Over to one
side, an Iraqi man named Tariq muttered in anger.
"I see no difference between us and the Palestinians," he said. "We
didn´t expect anything like this after Saddam fell."
The practice of destroying buildings where Iraqi insurgents are
suspected of planning or mounting attacks has been used for decades
by Israeli soldiers in Gaza and the West Bank. The Israeli Army has
also imprisoned the relatives of suspected terrorists, in the hopes
of pressing the suspects to surrender.
The Israeli military has also cordoned off villages and towns thought
to be hotbeds of guerrilla activity, in an effort to control the flow
of people moving in and out.
American officials say they are not purposefully mimicking Israeli
tactics, but they acknowledge that they have studied closely the
Israeli experience in urban fighting. Ahead of the war, Israeli
defense experts briefed American commanders on their experience in
guerrilla and urban warfare. The Americans say there are no Israeli
military advisers helping the Americans in Iraq.
Writing in the July issue of Army magazine, an American brigadier
general said American officers had recently traveled to Israel to
hear about lessons learned from recent fighting there.
"Experience continues to teach us many lessons, and we continue to
evaluate and address those lessons, embedding and incorporating them
appropriately into our concepts, doctrine and training," Brig. Gen.
Michael A. Vane wrote. "For example, we recently traveled to Israel
to glean lessons learned from their counterterrorist operations in
urban areas." General Vane is deputy chief of staff for doctrine
concepts and strategy, at the United States Army Training and
American officers here say their new hard-nosed approach reflects a
more realistic appreciation of the military and political realities
faced by soldiers in the so-called Sunni triangle, the area north and
west of Baghdad that is generating the most violence against the
Underlying the new strategy, the Americans say, is the conviction
that only a tougher approach will quell the insurgency and that the
new strategy must punish not only the guerrillas but also make clear
to ordinary Iraqis the cost of not cooperating.
"You have to understand the Arab mind," Capt. Todd Brown, a company
commander with the Fourth Infantry Division, said as he stood outside
the gates of Abu Hishma. "The only thing they understand is force —
force, pride and saving face."
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top military commander in Iraq,
announced the get-tough strategy in early November. After the
announcement, some American officers warned that the scenes that
would follow would not be pretty.
Speaking today in Baghdad, General Sanchez said attacks on allied
forces or gunfights with adversaries across Iraq had dropped to under
20 a day from 40 a day two weeks ago.
"We´ve considerably pushed back the numbers of engagements against
coalition forces," he said. "We´ve been hitting back pretty hard.
We´ve forced them to slow down the pace of their operations."
In that way, the new American approach seems to share the successes
of the Israeli military, at least in the short term; Israeli officers
contend that their strategy regularly stops catastrophes like suicide
bombings from taking place.
"If you do nothing, they will just get stronger," said Martin van
Creveld, professor of military history and strategy at Hebrew
University in Jerusalem. He briefed American marines on Israeli
tactics in urban warfare in September.
The problems in Abu Hishma, a town of 7,000, began in October, when
the American military across the Sunni triangle decided to ease off
on their military operations to coincide with the onset of the
Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
In Abu Hishma, as in other towns, the backing off by the Americans
was not reciprocated by the insurgents. American troops regularly
came under mortar fire, often traced to the surrounding orchards.
Meanwhile, the number of bombs planted on nearby roads rose sharply.
Army convoys regularly took fire from a house a few miles away from
The last straw for the Americans came on Nov. 17, when a group of
guerrillas fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the front of a
Bradley armored personnel carrier. The grenade, with an armored
piercing tip, punched through the Bradley´s shell and killed Staff
Sgt. Dale Panchot, one of its crewmen.
The grenade went straight into the sergeant´s chest. With the Bradley
still smoldering, the soldiers of the First Battalion, Eighth
Infantry, part of the Fourth Infantry Division, surrounded Abu Hishma
and searched for the guerrillas. Soldiers began encasing the town in
The next day, an American jet dropped a 500-bomb on the house that
had been used to attack them. The Americans arrested eight sheiks,
the mayor, the police chief and most members of the city council. "We
really hammered the place," Maj. Darron Wright said.
Two and a half weeks later, the town of Abu Hishma is enclosed in a
barbed-wire fence that stretches for five miles. Men ages 18 to 65
have been ordered to get identification cards. There is only way into
the town and one way out.
"This fence is here for your protection," reads the sign posted in
front of the barbed-wire fence. "Do not approach or try to cross, or
you will be shot."
American forces have used the tactic in other cities, including Awja,
the birthplace of Saddam Hussein. American forces also sealed off
three towns in western Iraq for several days.
"With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for
projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to
help them," Colonel Sassaman said.
The bombing of the house, about a mile outside the barbed wire, is
another tactic that echoes those of the Israeli Army. In Iraq, the
Americans have bulldozed, bombed or otherwise rendered useless a
number of buildings which they determined were harboring guerrillas.
In Tikrit, residents pointed out a home they said had been bulldozed
by American tanks. The occupants had already left, they said.
"I watched the Americans flatten that house," said Abdullah al-Ajili,
who lives down the road.
American officers acknowledge that they have destroyed buildings
around Tikrit. In a recent news conference, General Sanchez explained
the strategy but ignored a question about parallels to the Israeli
"Well, I guess what we need to do is go back to the laws of war and
the Geneva Convention and all of those issues that define when a
structure ceases to be what it is claimed to be and becomes a
military target," General Sanchez said. "We´ve got to remember that
we´re in a low-intensity conflict where the laws of war still apply."
In Abu Hishma, residents complain that the village is locked down for
15 hours a day, meaning that they are unable to go to the mosque for
morning and evening prayers. They say the curfew does not allow them
time to stand in the daylong lines for gasoline and get home before
the gate closes for the night.
But mostly, it is a loss of dignity that the villagers talk about.
For each identification card, every Iraqi man is assigned a number,
which he must hold up when he poses for his mug shot. The card
identifies his age and type of car. It is all in English.
"This is absolutely humiliating," said Yasin Mustafa, a 39-year-old
primary school teacher. "We are like birds in a cage."
Colonel Sassaman said he would maintain the wire enclosure until the
villagers turned over the six men who killed Sergeant Panchot, though
he acknowledged they may have slipped far away.
Colonel Sassaman is feared by many of Abu Hishma´s villagers, who
hold him responsible for the searches and razor wire around the town.
But some said they understood what a difficult job he had, trying to
pick out a few bad men from a village of 7,000 people.
"Colonel Sassaman, you should come and live in this village and be a
sheik," Hassan Ali al-Tai told the colonel outside the checkpoint.
The colonel smiled, and Mr. Tai turned to another visitor.
"Colonel Sassaman is a very good man," he said. "If he got rid of the
barbed wire and the checkpoint, everyone would love him."
(Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company 12/07/03)
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