KHANDARI, Iraq - The man sat crossed-legged on a floor cushion, sipped tea and explained his woes to the soldiers from Fort Lewis. As an Iraqi policeman on the American payroll, he has killed plenty of enemy fighters - and now his enemies are taking revenge.
Al-Qaida in Iraq killed his mother, brother and uncle. The man started the habit of checking under his car each morning. One day last month, he discovered a magnetically attached bomb.
“They are targeting me,” he told members of a Fort Lewis Stryker platoon. “The bomb was meant for me and my kids.”
Lt. Chris Fradin, a platoon leader with the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, asked the policeman for specific details and took notes. A local sheikh earlier had given Fradin names of men who might have planted the bomb. The policeman provided his own list of possible suspects.
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Fradin, 25, questioned the man about tribal links that permeate Nasir wa Salam, an area of 150,000 people at the western edge of Baghdad province. What did he know about the suspects? To what tribes did they belong? Do they have a reason to kill him?
“Look, man, I’m just trying to get to the bottom of this whole thing,” said Fradin, a New York native and Spanaway resident on his first deployment. “We want this guy caught as much as you do.”
U.S. soldiers increasingly find themselves in the detective-like role of Fradin and other members of the 2nd Platoon, Torch Company. They investigate crimes, chase leads and build cases against suspects.
They gather enough information so that an Iraqi court can order an arrest warrant, and then Iraqi security forces can arrest the suspect.
It is one of the ways the American military’s mission in Iraq has transformed in the last several months into an advisory and training capacity.
“Last time we were here, we saw lots of fighting, lots of kicking in doors, lots of cordon and searches,” said Staff Sgt. Fernando Villafana, a squad leader on his second deployment with the same Stryker brigade.
When the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division first deployed from Fort Lewis to Iraq, it was spring 2007; the unit served 15 months at the height of the violence, and lost 37 soldiers.
The brigade returned to Iraq in September and has not had a single soldier killed.
“It’s totally different now. It’s a whole new mission,” Villafana said.
FIRST OF SEVERAL LEADS
The policeman was the first of several leads the Stryker soldiers pursued Sunday. Their search for people behind a recent spate of magnetic bomb attacks also took them to the nearby towns of Abu Mansier and Shahada Abu Nasir.
The policeman believed the would-be assassin was either a neighbor or a criminal he recently arrested. He provided names and background information to the soldiers. They asked about three other names, included on the list provided by a local sheikh.
During the interview, the varied spelling of Arabic names hindered progress at times. The policeman appeared eager to give up damaging information about his neighbors and tribesmen.
“It can get frustrating,” Fradin said after it was over. “Anytime accusations get thrown around, you need to think about all the possibilities. Like the names of the suspects we’ve received: Are they insurgents, or are others trying to get them out of the way because of some blood feud? It’s not always easy to tell.”
KNOCKING ON DOORS
The platoon’s next stop was Abu Mansier, a ramshackle town of buckling streets and crumbling buildings. The soldiers searched for the brother of a man killed by another magnetic bomb.
The soldiers knew the man lived near the mosque. Fradin and the unit’s Iraqi interpreter knocked on doors around the area.
Children ran from their home to stare at the soldiers, who patrolled the dirt streets with their Stryker vehicles following several hundred feet behind.
One fireteam remained in constant search of higher ground; members talked to shopkeepers and homeowners who allowed them to use the top floor of their homes to scan for potential attacks.
Many people who spoke to Fradin said the same thing: They weren’t sure where the man in question lived – a claim the lieutenant doubted.
The soldiers next mounted their Strykers and drove to Shahada Abu Nasir, seeking family members of a third person killed by a similar-style bomb. The Americans visited a produce market, where merchants sold crates of oranges, bananas, potatoes and carrots.
‘WHAT THE WAR HAS BECOME’
The shopkeeper told Fradin he had heard about the attack, but didn’t know the person killed.
As they spoke, most bystanders acted as if the Americans weren’t there. They shopped, sipped tea or smoked cigarettes and talked.
“People in these neighborhoods know the sight of American troops,” said Staff Sgt. Brenden Bersey, a Spokane native on his third Iraq deployment. “It used to be that we would attack pretty much anybody who looked at us the wrong way. But we don’t do that anymore, and I think everyone here realizes that.”
The platoon next visited a house of another Iraqi policeman who found a bomb attached to the undercarriage of his car. This policeman agreed to visit the joint security station where the platoon lives and talk to one of the battalion’s intelligence experts. Based on what he says, one of the 2nd Platoon’s upcoming missions could be to piece together more information on the bombmaker.
“This is the way things are over here now,” said Sgt. Derek Quade, a team leader on his second deployment. “This is what the war has become.”