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Coalition Troops in Iraq Urged to Lower Profile After Handover - 2004-06-17

As part of the transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government, the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq says its troops have begun shifting their focus from fighting insurgents to training and assisting Iraqi security forces. Correspondent Alisha Ryu recently accompanied U.S. army commanders as they supervised a massive hunt for insurgents, and reports such raids may be become a rare event under the new Iraqi leadership.

A bugle call signals the start of an operation that commanders say they have been meticulously planning for weeks.

Code-named Striker Tornado, the six-hour, night-time operation is a massive series of near-simultaneous raids, targeting more than 20 people in 10 locations in a restive, predominately Sunni Muslim area between Baghdad and Karbala.

Inside a makeshift command post set up in the desert in Anbar province, near the area of the raids, a large display screen pinpoints the locations of 600 soldiers moving into position.

The troops are heavily armed and backed up by, among other things, dozens of tanks, armored vehicles, attack helicopters and unmanned reconnaissance planes armed with Hellfire missiles.

Most of the people on the brigade's target list are believed to be leaders of local anti-coalition cells, whose members have been planting roadside bombs, attacking civilian and military convoys, and conducting other violent activities.

The unit's operations officer, Major Chris Beckert, says planning took weeks because the commanders wanted to be absolutely certain that they had strong evidence against the cell leaders and knew exactly where they would be.

"We decided that precision-based targeting was the way we wanted to approach offensive operations, by starting to develop the right information and linking them with each other so that we could figure out if we have the right sources," he said. "We have had pretty favorable reviews about some of the raids that have been conducted. The Iraqi people respect the fact that we are precise about who we raid and capture."

Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution on Iraqi sovereignty, authorizing coalition troops to stay in Iraq until January, 2006 and to use all necessary measures to protect the interim government in the meantime.

Theoretically, that gives more than 150,000 troops from the United States, Britain and several other countries the right to stage offensive operations like Striker Tornado, without first obtaining permission from the Iraqi leadership.

However, analysts say in practice, major operations like this one will probably need Iraqi approval and that may be difficult to get.

The analysts say the majority of the Iraqi people have never approved the use of such military tactics.

Iraqis have long complained that troops act too aggressively and often show cultural insensitivity while searching people's homes. A number of innocent people have also been taken from their homes and detained, bringing unnecessary embarrassment to those arrested and their families.

Although coalition officials have offered apologies for many of the mistakes that have been made, the apologies have done little to dampen anti-coalition sentiments among ordinary citizens. The recent abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib Prison added more resentment toward the occupation and its troops.

A political science professor at Baghdad University, Nabil Mohammed Salim, predicts that once power is transferred to an Iraqi government, the public is likely to perceive even the most carefully planned, documented and executed coalition raid as an attack on Iraqi sovereignty.

"You have to realize the mentality of the Iraqi people," he explained. "We know the Americans have their guns, their tanks and helicopters. They can do anything. But once an American troop insults Iraqis, believe you me, they are going to be ready to die, not to accept such an insult."

Mr. Salim says coalition mistakes made after the transfer of power could also have a deep negative impact on the interim government itself. Interim leaders were chosen through a U.N.-sponsored political process rather than elected and they have been struggling to gain legitimacy and credibility with the Iraqi people.

Eager to be seen at home as having full sovereign authority, Iraqi leaders had asked the U.N. Security Council for veto power over all U.S.-led military operations. They failed to get that endorsement, but the U.N. resolution did give the interim government the power to demand the removal of coalition troops from Iraq at any time.

U.S. military commanders here say they are now working hard to establish a security partnership with the new Iraqi government. To minimize any future misunderstandings, talks between the two sides are underway to decide exactly who the enemy is in Iraq and what types of actions coalition troops can take against them.

Military commanders say they also intend to honor a pledge made by Washington to consult Iraqi leaders before staging offensive operations that might be viewed as sensitive.

But with pressure mounting on coalition troops to lower their profile to ensure a smooth transition to Iraqi rule, operations such as Striker Tornado may well become rare in Iraq.