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US Works to Improve Iraqi Security, But at What Price? - 2003-06-15

U.S. forces in Iraq are stepping up efforts to confiscate illegal weapons, after a deadline to voluntarily turn them in expired. The military said it successfully completed a week-long security sweep north and northwest of Baghdad aimed at confiscating weapons and flushing out armed militants, believed to be Saddam Hussein loyalists.

About 100 Iraqis are reported to have been killed. Local witnesses say innocent villagers were among those killed.

American armored vehicles have become a common sight here as they roll through the streets of towns and villages.

On this day they are on patrol in the village of Ajabur, about 60 kilometers north of Baghdad. A group of men stands by the side of the road and watches as the vehicles rumble on.

But a few days earlier, not far from here one such patrol was ambushed by a group of armed Iraqis. The troops returned fire and called in reinforcements.

Villagers in the nearby farming hamlet of Ughab recall such an incident. They said seven people were killed by the Americans, but they said five of those were innocent bystanders, farmers who had gone out to protect their cattle when the troops opened fire.

Hameed Said Atiaa described how American troops chased some men who had attacked the patrol. He said the Americans opened fire and killed two perpetrators, but also shot five of his cousins who he says had nothing to do with the ambush.

Incidents like these that have drawn angry reactions from the locals. On this day they have gathered to mourn those who died and pay their respects.

Hameed Sa'id Atiaa said the tribes of the region welcomed the Americans when they first came, because they got rid of Saddam Hussein. But he said that welcome could quickly wear out.

He said the shooting of his cousins may have been accidental, but he said these things must not happen. He said if the Americans go around shooting innocent people, arresting people, and treating us like Saddam used to, then we will see them as "occupiers" and resist.

For now, he said the least the Americans should do is pay compensation to the families of the five men they killed.

The villagers here said they do not know who carried out the ambush, but believe they were probably Saddam loyalists.

This area north and northwest of Baghdad is considered a likely hideout for remnants of Saddam Hussein's ousted regime and his Baath Party. And that is why U.S. forces launched a massive security operation to try to flush them out.

Lieutenant David Balkam and his men have been patrolling the area as part of the American operation. He said part of his mission is to search for members of the old regime and for weapons.

"Usually, what we do is for the safety of all the individuals in the household, we will pull them all out, usually to the front yard while we conduct the search. We usually have one person walk with us in case there is something that is locked that we need opened and just so they know we are not trying to steal any of their stuff," Lieutenant Balkam said.

Those searches have left villagers angry. They accuse the Americans of heavy-handed tactics and of killing, arresting, and scaring people. Hameed Dosh, 49, said the soldiers came to his house several days ago.

Hameed Dosh said the soldiers told the family to leave and then searched for weapons. He said they took his hunting gun and only allowed him back in the house two days later. He said people want the Americans to make things better by providing security and basic services, and not by frightening them.

Another villager said his uncle was killed by American troops when they came to his house to search for weapons.

Lieutenant Balkam said he knows of no one killed in the operations here. He said local Iraqis have not been hostile, nor have they asked the soldiers for anything. He said the relationship is generally good, but he agrees it is not easy.

"You know you have got an occupying army. We are doing everything we can to not impose ourselves on these people. We do have specific missions that we need to accomplish. We do everything we can to not affect the population, but you are always going to have a few people that are extremely unhappy with our presence here," he explained.

Different views, complicated further by an inability to communicate in a common language.

The Americans say these operations are designed to also help the local population feel more secure. That is not how many of the locals see it. But in talking with them, it appears that their animosity towards the American troops could be reduced if basic services were restored and daily life got better.

But that may not be something Lt. Balkam and his men can do much about right now. But American military officials say that getting rid of the weapons and remnants of the old regime are vital to begin improving overall security.