A large Iraqi flag flapping on his Soviet-era jeep, 1st Lt. Shehab Abdul-Jabbar led an Iraqi National Guard patrol down Baghdad’s heavily commercial Karrada Street. As he passed, merchants and shoppers smiled and waved their greetings. “Way to go,” one man shouted from behind the small charcoal stove where he was grilling a splayed fish for lunch.
“People are comfortable with this,” said Abdul-Jabbar, 38, an officer freshly minted from a U.S.-provided training course for the 35,000-man paramilitary force designed to bring internal security to Iraq.
The Iraqi guardsmen — venturing out for the last several days in their own vehicles and flying the Iraqi flag conspicuously — have found a warm welcome from most residents, some of whom have showered them with chocolates. Judging by their comments on seeing Abdul-Jabbar’s patrol come by Thursday, Baghdadis seem relieved to see their own soldiers taking over from U.S. occupation troops after nearly 15 months of foreign domination and violent disorder.
“It’s the best thing that could happen,” said Bilal Ismail, 34, a taxi driver who had just been stopped at a checkpoint and patted down by Abdul-Jabbar’s men.
The eagerness to see Iraqis back in charge of the streets of Baghdad suggested that replacing U.S. soldiers with Iraqis could go a long way toward reducing popular resentment directed at the U.S. military presence here. That resentment has helped nourish a campaign of bombings and other attacks against American soldiers and Iraqis seen to be cooperating with them, particularly police and National Guard recruits.
For many Iraqis, including influential Islamic spiritual leaders, the killing of fellow Iraqis by insurgents has gone too far, particularly since many attacks were carried out in the name of an international anti-U.S. jihad identified with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network. A wave of coordinated assaults that shook the country a week ago prompted denunciations in many mosques during last Friday’s prayers. One militantly anti-U.S. Shiite Muslim leader, Moqtada Sadr, specifically called on his followers to cooperate with Iraqi police to prevent a recurrence of what he termed foreign terrorism.
Since then, the attacks have dropped sharply in number and effectiveness. In particular, the transfer of political authority from the U.S. occupation to an interim Iraqi administration this week, two days earlier than scheduled, has gone off without a widely expected insurgent offensive.
U.S. security officials have warned that intelligence shows spectacular new attacks are still being planned, including more kidnappings of foreigners. But the people along Abdul-Jabbar’s route made it clear that, while they have no desire to see the Americans stay around, they want no more of the car bombings and attacks on police stations that killed scores of Iraqi civilians in recent weeks.
“Anything you might hear, something in a cafe or on the street, any information about a terrorist planning something, or anybody trying to do something, just let us know,” Abdul-Jabbar told a young man being searched for weapons at the checkpoint.
“Right,” said the man, Haidar Abbas Hamdoun, 24, who just graduated from Baghdad University’s language department. “These explosions, we are the ones getting it in the street. You guys, you are our countrymen. We are with you.”
The sight of Iraqi paramilitary troops riding down the street, standing with a weapon in the back of an open four-wheel-drive vehicle, has become a key symbol of renewed nationhood in the three days since the transfer of political authority, said Ahmed Hussein, who recently resigned from the National Guard to become a translator for U.S. forces.
“The Americans can’t stay here for a hundred years,” he added. “They want to go home, and Iraqis have to be in charge. So we want to show the people that we are taking charge. It’s natural.”
Nevertheless, the Iraqi National Guard patrols on Baghdad’s streets this week have been small and largely symbolic, mixed with U.S. troops who serve as backup and mentors. Moreover, according to U.S. military officials, only a fraction of the Iraqi National Guard roster has received enough training and equipment to mount even symbolic patrols in the still-dangerous streets of the capital.
Thursday’s patrol, for instance, stuck to the Karrada neighborhood, a middle-class stretch of shops and cafes near the Tigris River. Karrada has not been a source of recruits for the anti-occupation insurgency; it is considered one of Baghdad’s least dangerous areas for foreigners and Iraqis associated with them. Few people seemed to mind, for instance, that the Iraqi guardsmen wore uniforms identical to those of U.S. soldiers and dark green Kevlar flak helmets without covers that resembled those worn by foreign security guards.
But even there, soldiers said, patrol members were nervous that they had been ordered to maintain a checkpoint for two hours instead of the usual 20 minutes. That gave plenty of time for would-be attackers to note the position, get their weapons and mount an assault.
Two Humvees from the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division traveled along with Abdul-Jabbar’s two Iraqi military vehicles, which carried a total of nine men armed with AK-47 assault rifles. And 1st Lt. Timothy Stith, 32, of Jonesboro, Ark., retained the final say on what to do. But Stith, a National Guardsman who at home is an account executive for an environmental safety firm, said he tries to stay in the background while Abdul-Jabbar commands the patrols.
His U.S. troops huddled in the shade, about 20 yards away, while the Iraqi guardsmen checked cars at random. When the patrol moved along the streets, the Iraqi vehicles were at the front and rear of the four-vehicle convoy, with the Humvees in the middle.
“It’s a difficult transition, from being told everything to do, to doing and deciding for themselves,” Stith said.
Abdul-Jabbar’s unit, from the 302nd Battalion of the 40th Iraqi National Guard Brigade, is one among a 120-man pool of trained troops for the central Baghdad sector. Together, they have for the last three days mounted about 20 patrols a day of 10 men each, Stith estimated.
U.S. military officials have cited training and equipping Iraqi police and National Guard personnel as their most important task here after trying to maintain security. The schedule fell drastically behind during nearly 15 months of occupation, however, and Iraqi security units on several occasions in the past have backed down when asked by U.S. commanders to confront the insurgency.
Iraq’s interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, has vowed to crack down on insurgents since taking office a month ago, suggesting emergency rule might be declared in some areas. To make that easier, he has put the National Guard, formerly the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, under Defense Ministry command alongside the army.
Indications have grown over the last week that many Iraqis would follow Allawi’s leadership in the direction of tougher tactics if he had sufficient security forces to back up his threats. Samir Abdul-Karim, who owns a small grocery store across the street from Abdul-Jabbar’s checkpoint, said he was one of them.
U.S. soldiers have been ineffective during the last 15 months, he said, in part because they did not consider stopping common crime to be one of their jobs. Merchants who went to them to complain of robberies were shooed away, he said. His store, in a middle-class neighborhood, has been robbed twice since the war, he added.
“The best thing is the Iraqi patrols,” said Abdul-Karim, 48. Asked why, he replied: “Security. Robbers. Crooks. Bombs.”
“The Iraqis will be tougher on the criminals,” Abdul-Karim predicted. “The Americans arrest robbers and then they let them go again a week later. The Iraqis won’t do that.”
Copyright 2004 by The Washington Post Company. All Rights Reserved