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The Battle for Hearts and Minds
by Rob Eshelman
Monday Feb 9th, 2004 4:58 PM
Rob Eshelman reports for the Bay Area IMC from Iraq.
Unidentified US soldier in Samarra.

In the Iraqi town of Samarra, thick mud obscures the walkways leading into an immaculate gold-domed mosque and towering minaret in the town center. Iranian pilgrims walking through the busy market surrounding the place of worship have their worn leather shoes and long robes splattered with the wet paste of the city streets.


Samarra is also the site of new and aggressive US Army tactics that are similar to Israeli-style counterinsurgency. The methods involve house-to-house searches, curfews, neighborhood-wide closures, and retaliatory home demolitions. The US military says they are targeting resistance cells, however, the people of Sumarra say that it's indiscriminate punishment and intimidation.


Abu Mohammed, a taxi driver born and raised in Samarra, knows about these tactics first hand. He shows a small group of journalists the remains of his brother's house now a pile of rubble and twisted rebar. He says that this house and another in the neighborhood were demolished on December 22nd by bulldozers from the American military. Four days before the demolition, one of the US Army's new Stryker vehicles was hit by a mine in front of the house. A blackened patch and the twisted wire remains of burnt Stryker tires are visible out front.


According to residents living along the street where the attack occurred, the ten-vehicle convoy responded by shooting large caliber machine gun rounds into surrounding homes.


Across the street from the where the attack took place, a neighbor, Mr. Nuri points out shattered windows and pockmarked walls inside his home. The lock on the back door has also been shot out when soldiers stormed in, searching for the triggerman. They occupied the home and surrounding area well into the evening.


"I'm angry and afraid of the Americans now," says the gray-bearded Mr. Nuri, his wife and sons standing behind him.


Abu Mohammed, a taxi driver born and raised in Samarra, showing a small group of journalists the remains of his brother's house -- now a pile of rubble and twisted rebar.


A kilometer away, two helicopters circle low over a sprawling neighborhood of brown, boxy, two-story homes. Beneath them, The 1st of 23rd Armored Infantry is hard at work stopping cars, searching homes, and interrogating suspects.


Seven Strikers have set up a perimeter and are IDing and searching vehicles as they enter and exit the neighborhood. Two Army soldiers are splayed out in the dirt sporting 50-caliber machine guns trained on the cars passing through one side of the checkpoint. Around the corner two more kneeling soldiers point their machine guns down an alleyway.


At the other end of the dragnet, two of the eight-wheeled Strykers straddle the road. Providing backup at this end of the operation, another Stryker aims its heavy machine gun on the beat-up Iraqi cars - many with bullet holes in their windows - as they pass through.


As we enter the checkpoint, a well-tanned soldier with streamlined sunglasses and a smile that could sell a million tubes of toothpaste greets us.


"How's it going", one of us asks.


The people of Samarra are wonderful," responds the soldier in sunglasses. "What's going on in the outside world? We haven't gotten any mail and we don't have phones or e-mail."


Another soldier appearing pensive and nervous confirms that a Stryker had been hit in the location we had just visited and that another had been hit elsewhere in Samarra. He says that in the three weeks they've been in Iraq five soldiers from the 1-23 have been killed. "Has that been reported in the news?" asks the soldier in the rap-around shades.


Needing to get back to Baghdad before nightfall when the Ali Babas appear on the roadways, we leave the scene. As we drive out, a black-hooded Iraqi translator and several soldiers are interrogating a man - hands bound - with a sack over his head while another squad from the 1-23 is finishing up a house search. On the perimeter of the operation, more soldiers hunker down behind rusty steel drums - guns spotted on nearby Iraqis.


If the track record of Israel's occupation of Palestine is any barometer for how these tactics work, then the US Army needs to prepare for what happens when the hearts and minds of Iraqis are lost.


Rob Eshelman is a freelance journalist currently working in Iraq. His articles have also appeared in Counterpunch and the Brooklyn Rail. He can be e-mailed at