Md. warrior turns to peacekeeping

Baltimore native tries, after leading capture of Iraqi city, to save it

War In Iraq

April 20, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSUL, Iraq -- Lt. Col. Robert Waltemeyer quickly discovered that seizing the northern Iraqi city of Mosul was a lot easier than running it.

"We have to protect families and kids, stop bad guys from shooting at us, set up a city council and convince people I don't want to rule the city," said the beleaguered officer and Baltimore native, who led the ragtag forces that captured Iraq's second-largest city this month.

But rule it he must, at least for now, because the city's old government vanished in the Mesopotamian mists when the Americans arrived. Now Waltemeyer finds himself responsible for rebuilding this lethally divided metropolis of 1.7 million, while disarming fractious tribal militias and struggling to keep his nervous troops from turning their assault rifles on stone-throwing civilians.

While Waltemeyer, commander of the 10th Special Forces unit, faces severe obstacles -- his men are trained as soldiers, not policemen -- he also has powers undreamed of by most mayors. When one local broadcaster refused to run his message to the public, he sent Marines to seize the television station.

"It was not exactly the democratic process," he conceded yesterday.

But he has made progress. By yesterday, the city was stirring back to life. In the Kurdish enclave of west Mosul, which supported the war against Saddam Hussein, streets and shops were jammed, and lines at gas stations stretched for blocks.

In Arab eastern Mosul, where most residents regard the United States as an occupying force, many streets were nearly deserted. But traffic is starting to return, and some stores have opened. An anticipated demonstration against American troops never happened Friday.

Waltemeyer gave all credit to his men. "When you think about the size of the city, the complex and dangerous tasks these young soldiers face," he said, "this has got to be one of the proudest moments in American military history."

Pride is mixed with sorrow, though. At least10 Iraqi civilians were killed and perhaps 100 more injured in shootouts that involved U.S. forces last week. Some Iraqis blame Waltemeyer's troops, saying they targeted unarmed protesters in one incident and blundered in firing on Iraqi police in another.

In both cases, Waltemeyer said, his soldiers fired to protect themselves from gunmen using civilians as cover. "We picked discrete targets, people that were shooting at us," he said. "We used tremendous restraint in not firing any more than we had to."

But he also said that the Marines were under tremendous stress in the days leading up to the incident. "These men have been shot at around the clock since they set foot in the city."

And he confirmed that he has issued new rules of engagement for his Marines and Special Forces troops patrolling the city. He has ordered that they keep their guns pointed at the ground. They've also been told not to fly the American flag from their vehicles, a gesture that had angered residents.

The chaotic fall of Mosul on April 11 unleashed forces the small U.S. force -- estimated by military sources at about 1,500 -- could scarcely control. (Baltimore, with less than half the population, has 3,300 police officers.)

Armed neighborhood safety committees sprang up. So did long-suppressed antagonisms among some of the city's 28 tribes and 10 major political parties. Factional fighting broke out. Snipers have repeatedly taken potshots at U.S. patrols.

"It was like kicking an anthill -- suddenly, they're all over the place," Waltemeyer said.

Waltemeyer is a native of Woodlawn who graduated from Woodlawn High School and Frostburg State University. He lives in Colorado with his wife and two children, but tries to return to Baltimore each year to visit his relatives -- and his favorite seafood restaurants.

Like all Green Berets, the 42-year-old warrior is an expert in counter-insurgency, trained in guerrilla warfare and what in Vietnam was called "winning hearts and minds."

He was assigned to the Balkans during the conflict in Kosovo, and helped train the Georgian army to deal with guerrilla fighters -- including reputed al-Qaida operatives -- in the Pankisi Gorge last year.

In recent months, he commanded a tiny force of 30 American Special Operations forces leading the assault on Mosul. They directed up to several thousand irregular pesh merga militia fighters, who drove the Iraqi 5th Army with 10,000 men to the suburbs of Mosul before its collapse.

As the Green Berets planned their campaign, Waltemeyer and two top aides -- coincidentally also with Baltimore connections -- assigned code names that were familiar to them. They called Mosul "Baltimore"; outlying villages were named after Frederick, Towson, Elkton and Severna Park. The arc-shaped battlefront itself was referred to as "The Beltway."

"As our units took the villages, we'd hear over the radio, `I've got Elkton,' or `I've got Severna Park,'" he said.

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