Published: December 7, 2003
ABU HISHMA, Iraq, Dec. 6 As the guerrilla war against Iraqi insurgents intensifies, American soldiers have begun wrapping entire villages in barbed wire.
In selective cases, American soldiers are demolishing buildings thought to be used by Iraqi attackers. They have begun imprisoning the relatives of suspected guerrillas, in hopes of pressing the insurgents to turn themselves in.
The Americans embarked on their get-tough strategy in early November, goaded by what proved to be the deadliest month yet for American forces in Iraq, with 81 soldiers killed by hostile fire. The response they chose is beginning to echo the Israeli counterinsurgency campaign in the occupied territories.
So far, the new approach appears to be succeeding in diminishing the threat to American soldiers. But it appears to be coming at the cost of alienating many of the people the Americans are trying to win over. Abu Hishma is quiet now, but it is angry, too.
In Abu Hishma, encased in a razor-wire fence after repeated attacks on American troops, Iraqi civilians line up to go in and out, filing through an American-guarded checkpoint, each carrying an identification card printed in English only.
"If you have one of these cards, you can come and go," coaxed Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman, the battalion commander whose men oversee the village, about 50 miles north of Baghdad. "If you don't have one of these cards, you can't."
The Iraqis nodded and edged their cars through the line. Over to one side, an Iraqi man named Tariq muttered in anger.
"I see no difference between us and the Palestinians," he said. "We didn't expect anything like this after Saddam fell."
The practice of destroying buildings where Iraqi insurgents are suspected of planning or mounting attacks has been used for decades by Israeli soldiers in Gaza and the West Bank. The Israeli Army has also imprisoned the relatives of suspected terrorists, in the hopes of pressing the suspects to surrender.
The Israeli military has also cordoned off villages and towns thought to be hotbeds of guerrilla activity, in an effort to control the flow of people moving in and out.
American officials say they are not purposefully mimicking Israeli tactics, but they acknowledge that they have studied closely the Israeli experience in urban fighting. Ahead of the war, Israeli defense experts briefed American commanders on their experience in guerrilla and urban warfare. The Americans say there are no Israeli military advisers helping the Americans in Iraq.
Writing in the July issue of Army magazine, an American brigadier general said American officers had recently traveled to Israel to hear about lessons learned from recent fighting there.
"Experience continues to teach us many lessons, and we continue to evaluate and address those lessons, embedding and incorporating them appropriately into our concepts, doctrine and training," Brig. Gen. Michael A. Vane wrote. "For example, we recently traveled to Israel to glean lessons learned from their counterterrorist operations in urban areas." General Vane is deputy chief of staff for doctrine concepts and strategy, at the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command.
American officers here say their new hard-nosed approach reflects a more realistic appreciation of the military and political realities faced by soldiers in the so-called Sunni triangle, the area north and west of Baghdad that is generating the most violence against the Americans.
Underlying the new strategy, the Americans say, is the conviction that only a tougher approach will quell the insurgency and that the new strategy must punish not only the guerrillas but also make clear to ordinary Iraqis the cost of not cooperating.
"You have to understand the Arab mind," Capt. Todd Brown, a company commander with the Fourth Infantry Division, said as he stood outside the gates of Abu Hishma. "The only thing they understand is force force, pride and saving face."
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top military commander in Iraq, announced the get-tough strategy in early November. After the announcement, some American officers warned that the scenes that would follow would not be pretty.
Speaking today in Baghdad, General Sanchez said attacks on allied forces or gunfights with adversaries across Iraq had dropped to under 20 a day from 40 a day two weeks ago."We've considerably pushed back the numbers of engagements against coalition forces," he said. "We've been hitting back pretty hard. We've forced them to slow down the pace of their operations."
In that way, the new American approach seems to share the successes of the Israeli military, at least in the short term; Israeli officers contend that their strategy regularly stops catastrophes like suicide bombings from taking place.
"If you do nothing, they will just get stronger," said Martin van Creveld, professor of military history and strategy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He briefed American marines on Israeli tactics in urban warfare in September.
The problems in Abu Hishma, a town of 7,000, began in October, when the American military across the Sunni triangle decided to ease off on their military operations to coincide with the onset of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
In Abu Hishma, as in other towns, the backing off by the Americans was not reciprocated by the insurgents. American troops regularly came under mortar fire, often traced to the surrounding orchards.
Meanwhile, the number of bombs planted on nearby roads rose sharply. Army convoys regularly took fire from a house a few miles away from the village.
The last straw for the Americans came on Nov. 17, when a group of guerrillas fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the front of a Bradley armored personnel carrier. The grenade, with an armored piercing tip, punched through the Bradley's shell and killed Staff Sgt. Dale Panchot, one of its crewmen.
The grenade went straight into the sergeant's chest. With the Bradley still smoldering, the soldiers of the First Battalion, Eighth Infantry, part of the Fourth Infantry Division, surrounded Abu Hishma and searched for the guerrillas. Soldiers began encasing the town in razor wire.
The next day, an American jet dropped a 500-bomb on the house that had been used to attack them. The Americans arrested eight sheiks, the mayor, the police chief and most members of the city council. "We really hammered the place," Maj. Darron Wright said.
Two and a half weeks later, the town of Abu Hishma is enclosed in a barbed-wire fence that stretches for five miles. Men ages 18 to 65 have been ordered to get identification cards. There is only way into the town and one way out.
"This fence is here for your protection," reads the sign posted in front of the barbed-wire fence. "Do not approach or try to cross, or you will be shot."
American forces have used the tactic in other cities, including Awja, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein. American forces also sealed off three towns in western Iraq for several days.
"With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them," Colonel Sassaman said.
The bombing of the house, about a mile outside the barbed wire, is another tactic that echoes those of the Israeli Army. In Iraq, the Americans have bulldozed, bombed or otherwise rendered useless a number of buildings which they determined were harboring guerrillas.
In Tikrit, residents pointed out a home they said had been bulldozed by American tanks. The occupants had already left, they said.
"I watched the Americans flatten that house," said Abdullah al-Ajili, who lives down the road.
American officers acknowledge that they have destroyed buildings around Tikrit. In a recent news conference, General Sanchez explained the strategy but ignored a question about parallels to the Israeli experience.
"Well, I guess what we need to do is go back to the laws of war and the Geneva Convention and all of those issues that define when a structure ceases to be what it is claimed to be and becomes a military target," General Sanchez said. "We've got to remember that we're in a low-intensity conflict where the laws of war still apply."
In Abu Hishma, residents complain that the village is locked down for 15 hours a day, meaning that they are unable to go to the mosque for morning and evening prayers. They say the curfew does not allow them time to stand in the daylong lines for gasoline and get home before the gate closes for the night.
But mostly, it is a loss of dignity that the villagers talk about. For each identification card, every Iraqi man is assigned a number, which he must hold up when he poses for his mug shot. The card identifies his age and type of car. It is all in English.
"This is absolutely humiliating," said Yasin Mustafa, a 39-year-old primary school teacher. "We are like birds in a cage."
Colonel Sassaman said he would maintain the wire enclosure until the villagers turned over the six men who killed Sergeant Panchot, though he acknowledged they may have slipped far away.
Colonel Sassaman is feared by many of Abu Hishma's villagers, who hold him responsible for the searches and razor wire around the town. But some said they understood what a difficult job he had, trying to pick out a few bad men from a village of 7,000 people.
"Colonel Sassaman, you should come and live in this village and be a sheik," Hassan Ali al-Tai told the colonel outside the checkpoint.
The colonel smiled, and Mr. Tai turned to another visitor.
"Colonel Sassaman is a very good man," he said. "If he got rid of the barbed wire and the checkpoint, everyone would love him."