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Iraqi Security Forces Make Progress in Mosul, But Bomb Attacks Soar

Iraq's northern city Mosul, in Ninewa province, is a sprawling tangle of historic neighborhoods that straddle the Tigris river. With a mixed population of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and other minority groups, Iraq's third largest city is typical of many Iraqi towns that have see-sawed between periods of violence and relative calm since the U.S.-led invasion. VOA's Barry Newhouse recently visited Mosul.

A group of American soldiers from the 144th Military Police detachment of the Army's National Guard gathers in the office of police colonel Abdul Salman, commander of the police station in Mosul's Al Karama district.

A masked Iraqi interpreter for the U.S. military relays information between the soldiers and the commander about recent crimes in the district. The commander says that with all of the responsibilities of his station, he needs more resources, more officers.

Colonel Salman says this kind of terrorism is new, and the police and army units need to work together better.

About 8,000 Iraqi police in stations scattered across downtown Mosul are the front line in the battle between U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces and several Sunni insurgent groups, including al-Qaida.

U.S. forces turned over authority for the city's security to Iraqi forces in January, but U.S. troops continue to conduct patrols and provide crucial logistical and intelligence support for the local police and army.

U.S. commanders say the training of security forces in Mosul is, overall, a success, but Iraqi forces still struggle with equipment shortages and corruption.

Army Lieutenant Krieger, who oversees this detachment of MP's training the police, compares the Iraqi police in Mosul to the police in the U.S. city of Chicago in the 1930s, when criminal gangs paid-off and strong-armed police to overlook criminal activity.

"The thing you have to understand especially in Mosul in that there are levels of corruption," he said. "There is that level where they are taking bribes or skimming off the top, and then there is that level of corruption where they are helping to plant I.E.Ds or things like that. That level of corruption we just do not see a lot of.

Mosul is a majority Sunni-Muslim city, and Iraqi and U.S. officials say it has not been affected by the highly organized Shi'ite militias that have infiltrated security forces in Baghdad and elsewhere. But even police commanders here have been involved in helping the insurgency.

Up the road from the police station in al Karama district, another station has struggled with insurgent infiltration. Colonel Atullah Ali Muhammad is the station's fourth commander in the past year. Of his three predecessors, two were charged with supplying insurgents with weapons. The third was shot in a gunbattle.

Colonel Muhammed explains why he, unlike his predecessors, will not be intimidated or killed while on the job.

He says some of the officers do not live in closely knit clans outside the city, so there is no one to guard or watch them. He says when officers go off duty, if they do not have a community to protect them, they are very weak when they are alone.

While Colonel Muhammaed and some other officers find security in tightly knit villages on the outskirts of Mosul, those sorts of villages also provide cover for militant groups.

Iraqi commanders say some of the more sophisticated insurgent operations are organized outside Mosul, where locals keep silent through bribes or intimidation, making intelligence gathering difficult for Iraqi and American forces.

Inside Mosul, U.S. commanders say the anonymity of city life gives other insurgents cover.

Lieutenant Colonel Eric Welsh is commander of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, which works with Iraqi police and army units to track down terrorists and insurgents.

"You can sit here and say, 'How could you not know that you had four Syrians living next door to you?' And at first you think - are they just playing with me or do they not get it? And the answer is no - they are just big city people: [they think] 'stick to your own business, mind your own business and bad things will not happen to you," he said.

Mosul's economy has been devastated by the war and the loss of thousands of professionals and teachers fleeing the violence. Unemployment estimates run as high as 70 percent.

Insurgents have capitalized on the situation by paying desperate locals to plant roadside bombs.

The city's population is about one quarter the size of Baghdad's, but there are as many bomb attacks here as in the capital.

On a recent morning in an Arab-majority neighborhood in the western part of the city, where there is suspicion that locals may be hiding caches of weapons, American soldiers search houses.

"Alright, keep going out and get in front of Bravo team going to the next house over," said an American soldier.

As soldiers search the home of a retired officer in Iraq's former military, he says security is a problem, but his biggest struggle is providing for his family with the money he gets from running a tiny nearby shop. The man says others in similar situations sometimes turn to the insurgency for quick cash.

"They take money, $100," he said. "To hurt the Army, the police, the Americans."

He says in the past couple of years, the situation with the economy and the security has largely remained the same, and more and more of his friends and neighbors have left the city. He says he hopes U.S. and Iraqi forces will eventually defeat the insurgency, because he cannot afford to move.