Iraqi police help U.S. troops clear mosques

July 23, 2006|By JULIAN E. BARNES | JULIAN E. BARNES,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RAMADI, Iraq -- As U.S. troops mount a concentrated effort to clear insurgents from Ramadi this summer, they have joined with Iraqi forces in a delicate campaign to flush fighters from a culturally sensitive haven: the city's mosques.

Not only are religious sites protected under international treaty, but Iraqis are particularly touchy about non-Muslims entering a mosque. Americans cannot search them without alienating the very population they are trying to win over. But it long has been a truism of this war that the enemy hides where U.S. forces do not go.

Now U.S. troops have come up with a solution: using Iraqi police to enter the holy sites.

1st Lt. John Warren, a platoon leader with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, stationed in west-central Ramadi, recently received a tip that a man named Bakr, a suspected al-Qaida member, frequented the final prayer service at the Suphi al Hetie Mosque.

Bakr was suspected of having a role in a January bombing that killed 60 Iraqi police recruits and intensified the daily violence that has gripped this city.

Warren had to receive U.S. military permission before the raid. He gathered a group of Iraqi police officers, who are predominantly Sunni Muslim in this mostly Sunni city.

He outlined the plan and told them the target was responsible for killing Iraqi police. "The target may try to hide in the mosque, so I need you to clear it," Warren said. "Together we will get justice."

About 10 p.m., the time of the final prayers of the day, the Iraqi officers rolled up to the mosque. With a platoon of Marines cordoning off the streets, a squad of Iraqi police had marched into the courtyard of the mosque, only to find it empty.

Warren looked as if he could not believe it. The Marines nearby began to mutter. Someone, they speculated, must have warned the targets.

But there was no tipoff. The Marines, who had planned to take any suspects to a nearby house for questioning, learned from the homeowner that the mosque did not conduct the final prayers of the evening.

Warren made plans to hit the mosque again, but at the second-to-last prayer. This time, the mosque was full, with about 60 men and boys. As the Iraqi police swept the building, an Iraqi Sunni interpreter working for the Americans helped screen worshipers.

The platoon selected about 30 for questioning at the nearby house. As the Marines photographed the men, the imam of the mosque came over to the house. Warren, working with the interpreter, told the imam that he regretted that the police had to search the mosque but that the Marines were after a man who had killed Iraqis.

"I know," the imam said. "I stopped the morning and evening prayer because there were bad people."

Armed with the pictures of the men from the mosque, Warren returned to one of his informants, who said that several of the men were the suspected insurgents sought by the battalion.

In the end, a trick by an interpreter tripped up Bakr. Warren's prime suspect had claimed his name was Ahmed. But when the suspect rose to leave, the interpreter called out, "Bakr." The man turned, and the look on his face, Marines said, showed he knew he had been caught.

Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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