U.S. Soldiers Scour Iraq's Arab Jabour for Al-Qaida

U.S. soldiers in Iraq have been combing Arab Jabour, a Sunni area south of Baghdad. It has long been a haven for al-Qaida in Iraq and a lethal transit for moving bombs and fighters into the capital. But the Americans have had some successes, providing security and rebuilding the area.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And I'm Deborah Amos.

To Iraq now, where for the past four months soldiers of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division have been combing the vast rural region of Arab Jabour. It's an area just south of Baghdad. It's long been a haven for al-Qaida in Iraq. It's also been a transit route for moving bombs and fighters into the capital. The Americans have had some success providing security and rebuilding the area.

But as Tom Bowman, NPR's Pentagon reporter, reports, there's virtually no support or any follow through from the Iraqi government.

(Soundbite of Black Hawk Helicopter)

TOM BOWMAN: The Black Hawk swooping low, setting down softly on a just-plowed field. American combat troops spill out and flopped on their bellies; M-16s pointed along the tree line. It's a daylight assault on a suspected al-Qaida in Iraq meeting, scheduled within minutes at a mosque in this sleepy village. The deepest raid yet into Arab Jabour for this American unit called the Battle Boars(ph).

(Soundbite of Apache attack helicopter)

BOWMAN: They moved quietly through the palm groves, using hand signals or whispered commands. Apache attack helicopters circle menacingly overhead. Within minutes, they are surrounding a modest concrete house - inside are two old men and a dozen women and children.

(Soundbite of people talking)

BOWMAN: The two groups are separated. The women and children are scared.

(Soundbite of people talking)

BOWMAN: Some cry, others protests, but soon complied with the soldier's orders. The men are taken to another room where the interrogation begins.

Unidentified Man #1: I got a list of individuals here that I know are not friendly to us, not friendly to the peaceful people here.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

BOWMAN: The old men are perched on large bags of wheat stored in a side room. One begins to talk.

Unidentified Man #3: (Through translator) We don't know their names. They just show up here.

BOWMAN: Pressed by the Americans, the man starts to open up. He begins talking about Sheikh Hatum(ph), the man the Americans say is the spiritual leader of al-Qaida in this area.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) Sheikh Hatum hosts them and his cousins in the same houses, all these houses. Strangers come to them.

BOWMAN: Not all are strangers. He mentions one other name, Mahmoud(ph) - his brother. He's brought in from another house. Soon, he is kneeling and handcuffed in the next room along with several others.

The soldiers collect weapons. There are rifles, grenades, even a German luger pistol, photographs, documents, including a notebook containing a list of kidnappings.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

BOWMAN: Those captured are taken along the dirt road toward the mosque under the watchful eyes of the circling Apaches.

(Soundbite of shouting woman)

BOWMAN: A woman cries out desperately to her husband as he's lead off. By the time they get to the mosque, there are a few inside. The thumping blades of the Black Hawks caused most of the men there to scatter - meeting adjourned.

Soon the soldiers are back to their base - a manor house at a bend in the Tigress River. It was once a retreat for Saddam Hussein's sons. Now it's called Patrol Base Murray.

Lieutenant Colonel Ken Adgie says the main target eluded them, Sheikh Hatum. But he calls the overall mission a success.

Lieutenant Colonel KEN ADGIE (Commander, 1st Battalion, 30th Regiment, 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division): We've pulled off 13 targets that we're looking for, 13 al-Qaida guys who just do bad things to good Iraqi people.

BOWMAN: They are the first American soldiers to come here and stay - not just mount attacks and move on. Their mission is to control the roads into Baghdad and search for al-Qaida in Iraq - a homegrown movement. This area was considered so dangerous the Army had trouble attracting translators. Contractors wouldn't drive here from Baghdad.

Colonel TERRY FERRELL (Commander, 3rd Infantry Division, U.S. Army): The local citizens who were fearful their life, would not come out of their homes. Al-Qaida had come in and established a powerbase along the Tigress.

BOWMAN: Colonel Terry Ferrell is the overall commander of nearly 1,000 soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division.

Col. FERRELL: Uniquely to the area as well, there is no Iraqi army presence. There is no Iraqi police presence.

BOWMAN: Ferrell says the number of al-Qaida in Iraq attacks have dropped sharply. In June, there were about 20 attacks each week. Now, the weekly attack rate is about five. And part of the reason for that drop is Mustafa Shabib al-Jabouri, a portly retired Iraqi general who served under Saddam Hussein. Tired of the violence, he helped organize a local chapter of Concerned Citizens, sort of gun wielding neighborhood watch that works with the Americans. He has a force of more than 700.

Mr. MUSTAFA SHABIB AL-JABOURI (Founder, Concerned Citizens, Iraq): (Through translator) We established the group last year to defend against al-Qaida. We want to defend our country and our families.

BOWMAN: And how many has he captured or killed?

Mr. AL-JABOURI (Through translator) We killed many of them. It's impossible to count because the coalition forces killed them with their jet fighters.

BOWMAN: Just down the road from his office is a local market. Not long ago, these stalls were shattered because of the violence.

Mr. AL-JABOURI (Through translator) There are a few areas that are still not safe but in general it's much better than before.

BOWMAN: Ahmad Farran al-Jubouri(ph) owns a store that sells sweets, drinks and children's clothes. Spray painted on his store wall is I Heart USA. He says two of his cousins were killed when they complained to al-Qaida about their deadly operations.

Mr. AHMAD FARRAN AL-JUBOURI (Store Owner, Iraq): (Through translator) They even raided our houses and destroyed my business and they sent multiple death letters, especially after we fought against them when they tried to plant roadside bombs.

BOWMAN: Now Ahmad and the others turned their anger toward the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. Baghdad promised a clinic, a new road, a police station. That was two months ago; nothing has happened. (Unintelligible) forces are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars here - rebuilding schools, fixing massive pumps that pull water from the Tigress to irrigate the fields. No money is coming from Baghdad.

Major ERIC WEISZ(ph) (Operations Manager, Patrol Base Murray): Until we get the Baghdad government heavily involved, this area will continue to reach a status quo as far as we can take it.

BOWMAN: Major Eric Weisz is the operations officer at Patrol Base Murray. He also says Baghdad must send Iraqi army and Iraqi police forces so the Americans can continue their drive south into al-Qaida turf, and accept the Concerned Citizens who are now being paid by U.S. taxpayers.

Maj. WEISZ: The Concerned Citizens have to get legitimized in the eyes of the Iraqi government so that they can start being paid by the Iraqi government.

BOWMAN: Some Iraqi leaders have publicly dismissed the local watch group as nothing more than Sunni thugs and murderers. General Mustaffa of the Concerned Citizens has been promised by Baghdad that 120 of his troops will be brought into the government security forces. So far that's just a promise.

Tom Bowman, NPR News.

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