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Cordoned Off, an Iraqi Town Relaxes

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Cordoned Off, an Iraqi Town Relaxes

Iraq

Cordoned Off, an Iraqi Town Relaxes

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We're going to go to Iraq now and hear about an operation the U.S. military is calling a success. American troops have cordoned off a town north of Baghdad to keep insurgents out. NPR's JJ Sutherland recently embedded with U.S. forces there and found that the operation seems to be working.

JJ SUTHERLAND reporting:

The farming town of Tarmiyah sits on the banks of the Tigris, about 30 miles northeast of Baghdad. Until just a few weeks ago, it was known as an insurgent stronghold. The police station was attacked almost nightly. Insurgents ran their own patrols through town. Before the war, it was home to strong supporters of Saddam Hussein. He often gave out houses there as gifts.

(Soundbite of soldier on walkie-talkie)

Unidentified Man: Angel Mike, Angel Mike, PR-6, over.

SUTHERLAND: Now American and Iraqi troops walk the streets. Sergeant Billy Bersheer(ph) swivels his head back and forth as he carefully picks his way down Tarmiyah's main street.

Sergeant BILLY BERSHEER (U.S. soldier, Iraq): The people seem to be getting more friendly towards us. I know before when we came through the only presence we had would be a mounted patrol. We walked the streets a few times, usually getting a lot of bad looks. But now, now that we're living here, people are becoming a little more friendly.

SUTHERLAND: Bersheer's company moved into the town with an Iraqi battalion on March 25th. Tarmiyah is now surrounded by razor wire. There are only two roads open to enter or leave. Battle tanks guard the main entrance. Cars and people are searched on their way in and out. Now, a new calm has descended on the city, and Sunni families are moving here from elsewhere, fleeing the daily sectarian bloodshed that has infected other areas of the country, especially Baghdad.

Before the Americans occupied the city, the police force was almost nonexistent. No one would even volunteer for the job. Now, with the American and Iraqi troops present, more than 2,000 showed up at a recruiting drive. Those were whittled down to 64 who, this week, left for Jordan to undergo a 10 week training course.

(Soundbite of background conversation)

SUTHERLAND: The American and Iraqi troops have taken over the biggest building in town. Three stories of concrete, it used to be a girls' school. Military vehicles are parked on the road outside. Inside the walls, the courtyard is a muddy, rutted mess, with one Humvee sunk halfway into the moist ground. Captain Will Rodebaugh(ph) is in charge of the American troops here. He is amazed at the progress they've made.

Captain WILL RODEBAUGH (U.S. soldier, Iraq): We do 14 patrols a day, and those patrols focus on interaction with the people. And one of the best things to hear, one of the things we've been hearing, is how happy they are that we're actually in the town, because all the problems that they've had have pretty much stopped in terms of security.

SUTHERLAND: While the town does seem peaceful at the moment, soldiers continue to wear body armor and helmets to go outside to use the latrine. They worry that a nearby house could be used by a sniper. In addition to the regular patrols, the Americans are also handing out money. Major Herb Joliet(ph) has about $6 million to spend.

Major HERB JOLIET (U.S. soldier, Iraq): Salaam Alaikum.

Unidentified Children: (Arabic spoken)

SUTHERLAND: As he walks through town on his way to a meeting with a local sheikh, Joliet points out some of the projects, upgrading the ramshackle market where the farmers from the surrounding areas sell their goods. Motioning towards the piles of trash that litter the dusty, dirty street, he says he's starting a garbage collection service, and rebuilding the police station, which bears the marks of repeated insurgent attacks.

Major JOLIET: And this is the facility up here on the right. It looks like a fortress. We want to make it look like a police station, a friendly building.

SUTHERLAND: Major Joliet says the town is growing. New houses are going up. Major Joliet opens the Velcro closings on his body armor as he sits down with the local sheikh. Hamed Jasem Almashadani(ph) holds court in a bare room with plastic chairs and a desk. He agrees with Joliet. He says more than 1,200 families have moved into Tarmiyah recently.

Mr. HAMED JASEM ALMASHADANI (Tarmiyah Sheikh): (Through Translator) They were threatened and they fled through violence. Because anyone who is leaving this town is getting killed in Baghdad. In the last month, 30 to 40 were killed by men in government uniforms.

SUTHERLAND: The Sheik himself won't even travel to Baghdad despite invitations to meet with presidential Jalal Talabani and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, he won't go. He's afraid to be assassinated.

Unidentified Man: That's why I added 10 thousand to the 40. I added 10 thousand.

SUTHERLAND As SheikH Jasem and Major Joliet go over the financial details of some of the reconstruction projects, one of the Sheikh's aides, who only gives his first name, Kaiz(ph), moves to a nearby room to talk with a visiting reporter without disturbing the Sheikh.

Kaiz said he fled from Baghdad for Tarmiyah more than a year ago. And he knows why more and more people are coming here.

Mr. KAIZ: (Sheikh's Aide): (Through Translator) It's because of the Sunni Shiite issue. It is a civil war. It is only getting worse and worse. Since Jafri took power, 8,000 Sunnis have been killed. Wouldn't you call that a civil war?

SUTHERLAND: And that's what seems to be the common thought in the Sunni town. The anti-U.S. insurgents are always described as foreigners and the real criminals are the Shiites down in Baghdad. While Tarmiyah may feel safer because of the American presence, there has been no let up of the violence outside the razor wire. Just yesterday and insurgent ambush in nearby Taji left at left at least nine Iraqi policemen dead. In the past week, there have been 26 roadside bombings killing three U.S. soldiers and injuring five.

On the main road through town, small shops sell everything from food to appliances to car parts. Sergeant Bersheer halts the patrol and approaches two men sitting in the doorway of a clothing shop. The men seem nervous as he approaches and points at the blue striped ties in the window.

Sergeant BERSHEER: How much, how much are the ties?

Unidentified Man: (Through Translator) Three dollars.

Sergeant BERSHEER: Three dollars. Probably stop back here and get me a couple ties.

SUTHERLAND: As we walk down the street, residents have plates of cakes and juice out in front of their stores. They're celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed, and it's traditional to hand out sweets. But no one offers the Americans any.

Near the river, a black banner is hung from a mosque. It's a death announcement. A man was killed, it says, by the Shiites in Baghdad. JJ Sutherland, NPR News.

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