Troops in Iraq try to interpret the new rules of engagement


POSTED: Wednesday, January 07, 2009

TARMIYAH, Iraq » Army Capt. Christopher Loftis took in the scene: Iraqi soldiers raiding the home of a suspected insurgent wanted for participating in deadly attacks against U.S. and Iraqi troops.

An Iraqi lieutenant questioned three men found in the house about their brother: Was he home? No. Where was he? Syria. When did he leave? A year ago.

There were questions Loftis wanted asked, facts that needed to be clarified to determine whether they were lying. But under a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement that took effect hours earlier on New Year's Day, Loftis could only make suggestions and recommendations to Iraqi troops.

“;I would recommend they try to find a picture of the guy,”; Loftis, an American liaison to the Iraqi forces, told the Iraqi lieutenant, who declined to be identified because of concern for his safety.

Here, under the cover of darkness in an area known as the Sunni Triangle, it was clear it was a new year with a new set of rules for American troops.

U.S. military commanders across Iraq say they have been trying for months to put the security agreement into effect, working side-by-side with Iraqis on patrols, searches and detentions. Last week, though, it became legally binding.

For weeks, in some cases months, military commanders have been saying all operations with Iraqi security forces have been joint operations led by Iraqi troops and police. But privately, many have questioned what it would mean for U.S. forces and whether Iraqi forces were ready to lead.

Hours before the raid on the house, at Joint Command Center Tarmiyah on the outskirts of this predominantly Sunni town 30 miles north of Baghdad, American commanders met with an Iraqi major to determine the next joint operation.

Loftis, 41, of Honolulu, spread color paper copies of photos of suspected insurgents along with names, personal statistics, alleged charges and possible hiding spots. The copies, dubbed “;baseball cards”; by the military, were matched against an Iraqi list of suspects and then against a folder of detention warrants obtained by Iraqi security forces.

The major, who also declined to be identified because of security concerns, picked three baseball cards for the next joint operation, the first for this unit under the new guidelines.

Then began a negotiation between U.S. and Iraqi forces about the timing of the raid, which the major said should start after daylight and American commanders wanted to begin before dawn. Later, the two sides agreed to one raid before dawn and another during daylight.

Across the street at Joint Security Station Tarmiyah, the American outpost, Capt. Phillip Works gathered together members of his reconnaissance platoon with the 14th Infantry Battalion, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, from Schofield Barracks.

“;Everybody knows what happens today, right?”; said Works, 30, of Longview, Texas. “;The Iraqis are in the lead.”;

The first call to prayer in Tarmiyah began at a mosque as Works and the Iraqi lieutenant crouched down near the front gate of the home of the suspected insurgent. Nearby, American troops took positions behind Iraqi soldiers, who pushed open the gate and surrounded the house.

During the search, Loftis made a series of suggestions to the Iraqi lieutenant, who turned to him several times to report what his soldiers had found in the house and what the inhabitants had told them. American troops had accompanied the Iraqis through portions through the home.

The lieutenant's information helped Loftis determine what might be missing from the investigation, and what the Iraqis might want to consider looking for - such as a picture of the suspect.

The Stryker platoon also worked with the Iraqis to gather evidence, providing biometrics and fingerprints of all the men in the house because the Iraqi army still lacks the ability and equipment to conduct their own forensic investigations. The tests were to determine whether any of the men might be the suspect.

“;I don't know if I'd call it coaching as making recommendations,”; Loftis said. “;There are things that we are learning from each other through this process.”;

In the end, they didn't get their man. But they did get a photograph.