TIKRIT, Iraq — In at least one troublesome area of Iraq, the U.S. military is shifting from peacekeeping and nation building to the work it is designed and trained to do: fight wars.
Responding to attacks that have killed 150 of their colleagues during the six-month occupation, American forces over the weekend adopted a more aggressive approach to the so-called “Sunni triangle” — the region north and west of Baghdad where most attacks against the occupation are occurring.
Soldiers arrested 18 people in the deadly missile barrage last month that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz narrowly escaped, officials said Sunday. On Saturday, U.S. warplanes dropped 500-pound bombs on three empty houses on the Tigris River bluff where a Blackhawk helicopter was downed by ground fire Friday, killing all six U.S. soldiers aboard. It was the first bombing raid since President Bush declared an end to major hostilities on May 1.
U.S. authorities are wagering that security-starved Iraqis won’t protest the crackdown in the triangle, a focal point of support for the otherwise widely hated former regime. Tikritis are particularly resented by the Iraqi public, since most of the top officials in Saddam Hussein’s feared domestic security network were recruited from the area.
“The Americans should be stronger; they have to realize the criminals they are dealing with and treat them accordingly,” says Rajha Flayh, a woman shopping in Baghad’s Kadhimiya Shiite district. “Everybody I know is hungry for security.”
Lt. Col. George Krivo, spokesman for the U.S. command, said the 18 suspects in the Oct. 27 missile attack on the Al Rashid Hotel were arrested in Baghdad by the 1st Armored Division but gave no further details. The attack killed a U.S. colonel and injured 18 others.
Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the Iraq war, was staying in the hotel but escaped injury. The barrage was part of a series of escalated attacks over the past two weeks, including the downing of a Chinook helicopter Nov. 2 in Fallujah in which 16 soldiers were killed and 21 injured.
The downing of the Chinook and the crash Friday of the Black Hawk helicopter in Tikrit made the first week of November the bloodiest for American forces since May 1.
And U.S. forces have been responding.
“We have picked up the intensity of our offensive operations, and this is specifically manifested with the larger numbers of troops in the 82nd Airborne and other forces to the west,” Krivo said, without giving details on the numbers of troops.
“We are on offensive operations,” a U.S. officer said on condition of anonymity. “You can expect to see an increase in the level of intensity and the amount of activity that is occurring, especially in those ‘challenging’ areas.”
So far the approach is having the desired effect. Soldiers at the 4th Infantry Division headquarters in Tikrit say nightly mortar attacks against them have stopped since Friday night.
“What a show of force does is establish that we will not tolerate attacks . . . from anyone who is trying to keep Iraq in its past,” says Maj. Josslyn Aberle, spokeswoman for the 4th Infantry, which oversees military operations in the triangle.
Aberle says U.S. intelligence indicates that insurgents were paid just a few hundred dollars for each attack when the occupation began, but that rate has now risen as high as $5,000, an indication she says of increased fear of consequences.
Some Iraqis say the harsh tactics could backfire — especially in communities like Tikrit, Hussein’s hometown of 400,000 that was transformed from one of Iraq’s poorest to one of its richest under his rule.
“The Americans’ tactics are going to breed an even bigger reaction against them,” says Ali Malik, a police major in Tikrit. “Everyone in this town loved Saddam. Their patrols just make things worse. I have a 3-year old son, and even he spits and throws rocks when they drive past now.