U.S. Troops and Iraqis Are on Edge at Mosul Base


New York Times

December 27, 3004

MOSUL, Iraq, Dec. 26 - Standing in the courtyard of an Iraqi Army compound on the American base here, Capt. David A. Uthlaut was startled Sunday by a small explosion set off by the Iraqi soldiers behind him.

The blast was just a bit of barracks mischief: the Iraqis had planted a food-rations warmer in a water bottle and sealed it. The chemicals in the packet reacted with the water in the bottle, which exploded.

The harmless bomb was something even American soldiers said they occasionally rigged up for a joke.

But these are not normal times in Forward Operating Base Marez, where 22 people were killed Tuesday in the mess tent, directly across from the Iraqi compound, by a suicide bomber believed to have been wearing an Iraqi Army uniform.

"It's just soldiers being soldiers," Captain Uthlaut said, after he had inspected the bottle, which was leaking hydrogen vapors, and had recovered from a brief scare. "They're probably just bored."

Some Americans were not amused. "In this context, it is not funny," Staff Sgt. Robert Sugai said later, watching the Iraqis prepare for joint patrols with the Americans.

Less than a week after the worst attack on American soldiers since the transfer of sovereignty in June, the forces at this base are defensive, grieving and on edge, but determined to carry on with a job.

The linchpin of that job for American forces here is to work closely with the Iraqi Army and National Guard to put an Iraqi face on the American mission and to train Iraqis to provide their own security in time for national elections next month.

But soldiers here said the bomb attack on Tuesday took a toll on their trust in the Iraqis who live and eat in their midst on the base, and who might have to provide the Americans with first aid or life-saving protection during patrols and operations.

The attack heightened suspicions that the bomber could have infiltrated or spent months among them, gaining first-hand knowledge of the base and preparing for the attack.

Some fear that insurgents could reach Iraqi soldiers on leave, blackmail them by threatening their families and send them back to the base to attack Americans. Some of the Iraqi National Guard forces commute daily from Mosul to the base for work.

"When something like this happens, it tends to be viewed as a breach of trust," Captain Uthlaut said. "You have to take extra precautions that could be intrusive on their lives but may be necessary to save ours."

Before the attack, Iraqi soldiers of the 11th Iraqi Regular Army Battalion ate in the dining hall, passing into the tentlike structure without being searched. They moved from their living quarters compound with an American escort.

Now, the Iraqi soldiers are searched more thoroughly and more often, and there is "stricter accountability" with head counts. Their vehicles are thoroughly inspected when they return from leave or a patrol.

After the blast, investigators interviewed the Iraqis on the base, which houses their national guard and army forces, and asked them if they had seen anything suspicious. Some replied that they had seen someone they did not recognize dressed like them, in "chocolate chip" brown camouflage uniforms.

Security has been tightened around the Iraqi compound as it was around the American living quarters next to it, where fresh spools of razor wire were uncoiled, making it more difficult to walk around at will, and sometimes confusing soldiers driving Humvees who now have to learn the mazelike layout of new routes.

"They now suspect everyone here," said Lt. Col. Ahmed Ibrahim Ali, the commander of the Iraqi Army battalion. "We feel like we live in a prison."

Separately, Captain Uthlaut said, "We are a little more careful with searching these guys. "The fine line is treating them as partners, while not treating them like prisoners."

For their part, Iraqi soldiers grumble about poor food, prisonlike conditions, insufficient salaries, outdated weapons, lack of access to medical care and lack of contact with their families. Their sleeping quarters are cots on a concrete floor, not much worse than those for some American soldiers here.

On a joint patrol here on Sunday, the Iraqis set off in uncovered vehicles that resembled small Jeeps, with only a few metal plates fastened to the back with plastic-coated wires or canvas straps but no armor. The vehicles would afford no protection from a roadside bomb, one of the biggest dangers on Mosul's streets.

Their American counterparts on the patrol, on the other hand, were in hardened Stryker vehicles. When one of the Strykers was hit by a bomb recently, an officer said, it still managed to recover to move 50 miles an hour on the rest of its seven wheels.

The Iraqis in the army battalion lost three men in the blast on Tuesday. Witnesses said Iraqi forces administered first aid to American soldiers after the explosion.

Nevertheless, some Americans say they do not trust the Iraqis. "A lot of times I would catch them stealing food," said Maj. John Nelson, a 51-year old American battalion surgeon. "If they are willing to break the rules and steal food, why wouldn't they do something else? I have never trusted anybody but fellow Americans in a combat zone."

The Iraqis, for their part, complain bitterly about the preserved, ready-to-eat rations that come in sealed bags, saying the meat inside is not slaughtered according to Islamic practices.

"We throw everything away but the biscuits," said Tahsin Ghanim, a 22-year-old Shiite Muslim soldier from Baghdad. "Can you imagine a soldier operating just on biscuits?"

Dhia Qathim, also from Baghdad, said some of the rations contained pork. "The Americans are Christian; they would not understand," he said.

Some American soldiers who work closely with the Iraqi forces try to bridge cultural gaps. One American murmured to another in a low voice to be sure to compliment the Iraqis for being on time for the joint patrol on Sunday.

Others have learned the Arabic words for rifle and pistol, or local greetings. Motivational slogans like "Be. Know. Do." are painted on the Iraqi barracks in Arabic and Kurdish, reflecting the ethnic mix of the Iraqi soldiers.

Iraqi commanders appear to speak their views frankly in front of the Americans, who sat in but did not interfere in one interview.

"This situation is only temporary," said Colonel Ali, the Iraqi Army commander. "We deal with it because we know in the future it will change. But right now we can't work without the Americans."