Insurgent Infiltration Not a New Concern in Samarra

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Insurgents posing as police destroyed the golden dome of one of Iraq's holiest Shiite shrines on Wednesday, setting off increased sectarian violence. Steve Inskeep talks with Knight Ridder reporter Tom Lasseter, who was embedded with American troops in Samarra earlier this month.


Samarra, the scene of the attack on the shrine, remains violent despite multiple attempts by U.S. forces to root out insurgents there. Knight Ridder reporter Tom Lassiter recently spent two weeks in Samarra imbedded with U.S. troops, and he's online the line from Iraq.

And Mr. Lassiter, did the attack on the mosque surprise you at all?

Mr. Tom LASSITER (Correspondent, Knight Ridder): No it didn't. Samarra is a really violent place where the U.S. forces have had a lot of trouble recruiting and maintaining Iraqi security forces. And what they've had to do in the interim is bring in commandos from Baghdad's Interior Ministry there. But, you know, it's a very, very volatile place.

INSKEEP: Commandos, those are the elite forces that the Iraqis have. Among the few police forces that are considered consistently reliable.

Mr. LASSITER: Yeah. I mean they are considered tactically reliable. But they pose a big problem in these heavily Sunni areas because they tend to be all Shia, and it often creates a lot tension with the locals. That's certainly been the case in Samarra.

INSKEEP: And why has it been difficult to recruit local Iraqis in Samarra to serve in security forces?

Mr. LASSITER: Sure, and this really gets to the heart of the problems with creating stability in Iraq. It's that there are two things that you can do. One is that you can bring in outside forces, like the commandos. But it creates a lot of tension in places like Samarra, because it's you know, a heavily tribal area that does not look well on outsiders. It's also a place where there's no shortage of insurgents. And so if you're going to recruit locally, those local police, even if they come in wanting to do the right thing, are going to face intense intimidation from insurgents. And many of them will be infiltrators.

And in fact, the U.S. military had to take Iraqi police and army off of the checkpoints late last year because they were letting insurgents come in. And according to U.S. military intelligence, that included Abu Musab Zarqawi, who bought his way in through a checkpoint to negotiate a sizable arms deal in Samarra earlier this year. And that's why the commandos were brought in.

INSKEEP: Now, the U.S. troops that you spent time with, what is their role in a difficult situation like this?

Mr. LASSITER: Well, there are not a whole lot of them in Samarra right now relative to the units they replaced. The U.S. installation closest to that shrine is an abandoned schoolhouse, which has got about a platoon of guys. And so they weren't really able to get out and patrol much. They acted as a quick reaction force when others were attacked. They did site security for their own base. But they weren't able to sort of project power into the neighborhood nearly as much, because they didn't have as many boots on the ground.

INSKEEP: In your reporting you quoted an officer who said that Samarra is an example of many Iraqi towns that are barely functioning. Is that in fact the case?

Mr. LASSITER: Samarra is a town that is, you know, the U.S. military has surrounded it with a dirt wall. The town has lost more than half its population during the past year and is the scene of frequent attacks. And American military does not trust the local Iraqi security forces. And in fact, we were responding to, the U.S. military guys I was with, one of their outposts was hit by an RPG, and we had a grenade thrown at us over the wall. It came very close, sort of this, you know, had to run and dive behind the wall as the shrapnel exploded, came out from behind that wall, continued down the street along the wall that the grenade had been thrown over, and then we got to a steel grate where we could see behind. And what was behind it was a hospital and a police station.

INSKEEP: That's where the grenade came from?

Mr. LASSITER: Yes. And two days later two more grenades were thrown over that same wall. And there was certainly a lot of suspicion that either the police or indeed the hospital staff had something to do with it.

INSKEEP: We've been talking with Knight Ridder reporter Tom Lassiter, who was imbedded with American troops in Samarra earlier this month.

Thanks very much.

Mr. LASSITER: Thank you.

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