WASHINGTON – U.S. troops first went into the so-called Sunni triangle in central Iraq with an iron fist. Their replacements are going in with a velvet glove, as part of a new Pentagon strategy to “win the hearts and minds” of Iraqis.
But so far the softer approach hasn’t worked. Wednesday’s grisly attacks on Americans near Baghdad and Fallujah, where Marines have been relieving soldiers of the army’s 82nd Airborne Division, is just the latest reminder.
The troop deaths there brought the total number of U.S. casualties in Iraq to 600, including more than 40 in March alone, making last month one of the deadliest since last April, when daily combat from the U.S.-led invasion was under way. Total wounded, meanwhile, is approaching 3,500. Many have lost limbs from roadside bombs.
Some U.S. military officials think troops can win over Iraqis by learning and respecting their religious and regional customs and mores.
But others argue they’re up against an impossible mission of trying to help a people who will hate them no matter what they do; and they are calling for a return to hard-nosed tactics. They may get their wish: The Pentagon has promised an “overwhelming” retaliation for Wednesday’s atrocities in Fallujah, where local Iraqi men hacked up the bomb-charred bodies of American civilians and strung them up on bridges while shouting anti-American slogans.
Ret. Army Lt. Col. Stephen Franke is in the “hearts and minds” camp. He spent years in Iraq during and after the first Gulf war as an Arabic interpreter and weapons inspector. And he says the key to stabilizing Iraq is knowing and understanding the cultures, which can vary region to region, even town to town. Arabs aren’t the only ethnic group in Iraq, he points out. There are also Kurds, Turkmens, Assyrians and Chaldeans. And of course, there are the two major religious factions, the Shiites and Sunnis.
Assisted by Iraqi-Americans living in Southern California, Franke has helped school soldiers, including Camp Pendleton Marines, who recently shipped out to Iraq, in local Arab etiquette. His basic rules include:
- Respect and observe the traditional privacy of home and family.
- Leave all females alone; don’t approach or address them, unless absolutely necessary, and include female soldiers in the party making the approach or contact.
- Do not yell or point at Iraqis under normal, non-shooting circumstances.
- Clear residents before searching their homes with dogs, as many Muslims view dogs, like pigs, as unclean.
- Make a point to show respect for elderly Iraqi males, particularly religious leaders.
Before sending replacement troops to Iraq, several army bases, including Fort Dix in New Jersey, are putting them through brief cultural awareness classes taught by private contractors. They are also supplying them with pocket guides to Arab culture and greetings.
But Franke thinks the crash courses, as well as the “do’s and don’ts” lists of such guides, are overgeneralized and can lead to false stereotyping.
“My own program is different because it includes input – really, detailed cultural and behavior advice – from Iraqi-American sources who can provide role-playing” with soldiers before they are deployed to Iraq, he said.
His “Iraqification” program, as he calls it, covers both Arabic and Kurdish signage, wall graffiti, authentic ethnic dress, gestures and chants and phrases in Arabic, Kurdish, Turkmen and Aramaic. It also teaches negotiation styles.
Fort Irwin in California, the home base of army’s National Training Center, has approached Franke about his Iraq pre-deployment program.
The army at the same time is said to be switching to kinder, gentler interrogation tactics of Iraqi detainees. Several U.S. guards at a Baghdad prison recently were criminally charged with abusing detainees.
A senior military intelligence official, who recently returned from Iraq, says that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, earlier this year put limits on harsh questioning tactics.
“General Sanchez passed around a memo saying interrogators could use no harsh techniques – no ‘Mutt-n-Jeff’ approaches or any ‘pride-and-ego-down’ approaches – without his permission,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.
“Mutt-n-Jeff” refers to a good-cop, bad-cop routine to pry information out of a detainee. And “ego down” involves deflating a defiant detainee whose pride is his armor against questioning.
In addition, the official said many unit commanders have stopped military police and interrogators from denying detainees the Quran and prayer beads, which had been used as incentive items for cooperation.
A military spokesman in Baghdad declined comment.
The reliable intelligence source, who has also visited Iraqi cities outside the Sunni triangle, is less sanguine than Franke about the softer approach. He told WorldNetDaily that anti-American resentment is deep, widespread and intractable.
“These guys are being told that they have to go out there and win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis,” he said. “But in the places we stopped over there, there are daily mortar attacks and drive-by shootings – a fact that only seems to get in the press when somebody dies or a helicopter gets shot down.”
The military has brought on some of the hostility itself, however. Many Iraqis are retaliating against GIs for seizing, even killing, innocent civilians in bad raids.
In fact, a recent Army intelligence report, written by Lt. Col. Robert L. Chamberlain, said such faulty targeting was having an “adverse effect” on attitudes toward the occupation.
“Time is of the essence in targeting the enemy, but many units are targeting off of single-source, unconfirmed reports,” the close-held trip report said. “Yes, units have to act fast, but conducting operations against the wrong targets is having an adverse effect.”
The senior intelligence official who spoke to WorldNetDaily only on the condition of anonymity says the daily guerrilla attacks have spooked GIs into a “shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later mode” that has led to some unnecessary killings.
“There’s a lot of killing of Iraqis going on over there that you don’t hear about,” he said. “I would estimate at least a dozen a day.”
Last week, the Army admitted soldiers killed two Iraqi TV journalists after mistaking them for insurgents at an army roadblock in Baghdad. The journalists were shot several times while driving away from the roadblock. Arab reporters walked out of a press conference in Baghdad by Secretary of State Colin Powell to protest the shootings.
The intelligence official was quick to add, however, that some Iraqis taunt soldiers at American garrisons.
“It doesn’t help that Iraqis like to get drunk and drive up to compound walls and take potshots at the machine-gun nests,” the official said.
GIs are also breeding local resentment by randomly rounding up locals and sending them off to overcrowded detention centers, such as the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad, which holds almost 1,500 of the roughly 10,000 Iraqis held by the U.S. Last month, six U.S. soldiers at the prison were charged with criminal abuse of Iraqis held there.
An earlier trip report by Chamberlain and other army intelligence officials criticized the absence of a standard release policy for detainees at the prisons. It said some were being held “unnecessarily.”
“It’s like the Roach Motel,” said the report. “They can check in, but they never check out!”
“Some of the detainees happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, others randomly accused of crimes by vindictive neighbors and enemies,” the army report, issued last summer, added. “And the detention facility continues to grow.”
It cited a detention facility in Tikrit where “approximately 80 percent of the persons are unnecessarily detained, and were probably just victims of circumstances.”
The internal army report concluded at the time that, as a result of the unjust imprisonments, the military was “not winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Iraqi people.”
The senior intelligence source who recently returned from Iraq says prisons are detaining more people than they should because they don’t have enough intelligence people to screen detainees to see if they are a security threat.
The concern is echoed in Chamberlain’s more recent report, which faults a lack of human intelligence personnel, most notably Arabic interpreters, for operations problems.
“Commanders are frustrated by the lack of HUMINT (human intelligence) personnel,” Chamberlain wrote.
HUMINT communications also is a problem.
“Communications at all levels is their Achilles’ heel,” Chamberlain said. “The CHATS/CHIMS (computer) systems appear not to work and impede THT (tactical human intelligence teams) productivity.”
He recommends outfitting each team with satellite phones.
“The intel situation over there is abominable,” said the senior intelligence source, which makes it extremely difficult to root out insurgents, who blend in with the general population.
He expects attacks to continue to surge as new troops replace old ones in coming months. During the massive turnover, occupying forces will lose situational awareness, relationships and experience on the ground, he notes.
“Nobody is really going to be around to show these new guys in town the good parts, bad parts or who or what to look out for,” the official said.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said there will be overlap during the hand-off, and that each new unit will have several weeks to be briefed on the enemy, culture and local terrain.
The official says that may be good in theory, but not in practice.
‘Piles of trash’
“It’s one thing to brief somebody that there are IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in piles of trash on the road, but it’s another to see the trash for yourself one day and have to pick out where the bombs are,” he said.
Insurgents are also planting remote-controlled bombs in roadside carrion.
Anthony Cordesman, senior defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies here, agrees.
“Without being able to win hearts and minds at this point in time, you’re going to find the insurgency campaign almost certainly continues at some level,” said the former Pentagon official, who recently returned from Iraq.
“In fact, I have not talked to any commander there who feels that there won’t be incidents through 2005,” Cordesman said in a recent WorldNetDaily interview.
To shore up gaps in intelligence on the ground there, the army’s intelligence center at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., has sent intelligence specialists to Iraq to train soldiers on screening and interrogation techniques.
A Fort Huachuca spokeswoman called them “mobile training teams.”
“They’ve conducted on-the-spot military intelligence training to non-military-intelligence units with an increased operations tempo,” spokeswoman Tanya Linton told WorldNetDaily.
At the same time, Fort Huachuca is rapidly retraining reservists into intelligence specialists for deployment in Iraq as so-called THTs, or tactical human-intelligence teams. Soldiers from Fort Bliss, Texas, for example, recently came to the post for a 12-week course, which includes some cultural schooling in how to deal with Arab and Muslim detainees. (Soldiers will still have to rely on local Iraqi interpreters, who often have divided loyalties, as they are not being trained to speak Arabic.)
Franke fears the “shake and bake” course, as he calls it, will not properly prepare troops for the realities they’ll face in Iraq.
“I hear the course is freighted with generalizations,” he said.
The intelligence official agreed: “We just gave a bunch of reservists a crash course on some basics of being in a THT, and are throwing them to the lions.”
Others worry that even with the rapid retraining, there still won’t be enough THTs in theater to penetrate guerrilla and terrorist cells, which seem to be growing even after Saddam Hussein’s capture.
The plan is to pump about 135 more intelligence teams into Iraq to help with screening and interrogations, as well as producing daily intelligence briefings for commanders.
Last June, by comparison, there were a total of 69 THTs in Iraq.