Soldiers’ doubts weigh heavy on mission to lay foundation for Baghdad security plan

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Soldiers spearheading the increase in U.S. forces in Baghdad are papering car windows and storefronts with purple stickers listing telephone numbers and an e-mail address where Iraqis can send intelligence tips to help stop the violence.

But if a recent sweep in search of car bomb makers is an indication, they have a long way to go to improve intelligence.

Soldiers from the Army’s 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment converged this week on a religiously mixed north Baghdad neighborhood of auto parts stores and “chop shops” that Iraqi commanders believed was used to rig deadly car bombs.

Moving door to door, Iraqi and U.S. soldiers smashed padlocks with sledge hammers, clipped through wire gates and rifled through hundreds of buildings as Iraqi mechanics, their hands slick with grease and motor oil, peered from nearby shops.

Instead of discovering a network of clandestine car bomb factories, the soldiers instead found only a few Kalashnikov rifles, eight grenades and some wire.

“We’re told this new surge is going to be more intelligence-based instead of just hitting random sites,” said Staff Sgt. Jamie Slagle, 31, of Morrisville, Mo., as he flipped through a stack of unused stickers. “But that’s what seems to me to still be going on.”

U.S. officials have urged Iraqis to be patient and have cautioned that the new security operation could take months to show results. That’s a hard message to swallow for Iraqis who have endured years of violence _ including a triple car-bombing Monday that killed at least 71 people in the heart of the capital.

The U.S. military has advertised some successes, including the discovery of 14 weapons caches during a series of raids and patrols in Baghdad during the week that ended last Friday. On Thursday, U.S. and Iraqi troops arrested two members of a car bomb-making cell in Amiriyah, a Sunni neighborhood near Baghdad airport, the command said.

But for the soldiers of the 23rd Regiment, the results of the new phase have been disappointing so far. Some of them fear that the delays in kicking off the new security operation may have given Sunni and Shiite extremists time to flee the capital or hide their weapons.

“Why are they sending us ground pounding?” asked Spc. Kevin Gibson, 26, of Shiloh, Ohio, as he slumped on a dusty couch in an abandoned office after a day of futile searches.

What still seems lacking, soldiers say, is good intelligence _ and cooperation from Iraqis themselves.

“It’s like a 50-50 game. Fifty percent is good intelligence and 50 percent is just plain bull,” said Spc. Brett Rochon, 22, of Ansonia, Conn. “You’ve got a better chance of walking around the street.”

Since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, U.S. military officers have been courting tribal leaders, repairing schools, clearing streets and making contacts _ all with the goal of winning public support against insurgents and militias.

But transforming goodwill into useable intelligence has proven elusive. And sometimes, the insurgents have turned the tables by spreading false information under the guise of friendly tips.

Last month, U.S. troops launched a raid on Haifa Street in central Baghdad after receiving a tip that insurgents were in the area. As the Americans arrived, they were ambushed and one American was killed.

“The first target we went to, as soon as we dismounted, they started throwing grenades at my guys like they knew we were coming,” said Capt. Isaac Torres, 34, of San Diego, Calif., a company commander.

Nevertheless, the U.S. has little choice but to rely heavily on the Iraqis _ both civilians and military _ if it stands any chance of success in pacifying the capital. Under the new plan, Iraqi forces will take the lead in securing city neighborhood by neighborhood _ with American units standing by in case of trouble.

“We will have to share the burdens and move forward together,” Gen. David Petraeus said Saturday when he assumed command from Gen. George W. Casey. “If we can do that and if we can help the people of Iraq, the prospects of success are good. Failing that, Iraq will be doomed to continued violence and civil strife.”

But some soldiers fear that the ranks of the Iraqi police and army are now so riddled with militiamen and insurgent sympathizers that the strategy may backfire.

“The newest plan had the best chance of being effective two years ago. But I don’t think it has much of a chance now. It’s just too late. The militias are embedded in everything,” Slagle said.