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In Iraqi town, residents blame attacks on U.S. troop presence

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

HIT, Iraq – Lt. Col. Thomas Graves wasn’t expecting trouble as his convoy rolled toward this embattled Euphrates River town at midday recently, on a mission to monitor Friday prayers at mosques.Local officials had assured Graves, the top U.S. commander in the area, that Hit was “going through a period of peace and quiet,” he said shortly before leaving his camp.But just as Graves reached the edge of town, the road in front of his Humvee exploded in a cloud of dust and debris. An insurgent hiding in a nearby palm grove had detonated two buried artillery rounds, narrowly missing the colonel.”Welcome to Hit! It’s a peaceful little town – sorta,” Graves told a reporter traveling with him.So it goes here in western Iraq’s Anbar province, a center of Sunni resistance. In Hit, U.S. forces and their Iraqi counterparts are the target of most of the two dozen attacks – road bombs, shootings and mortar fire – each week. Residents are quick to argue that the American presence incites those attacks, and they blame the U.S. military rather than insurgents for turning their town into a combat zone. The Americans should pull out, they say, and let them solve their own problems.Increasingly, the U.S. military seems eager to oblige.While senior U.S. commanders have indicated that troops will be required to stay longer in Anbar than elsewhere in Iraq, they have already begun cutting back forces in some smaller, less strategic towns along the Euphrates. In Hit, Graves’ Army battalion replaced a much bigger Marine contingent; U.S. troops have been ordered recently to leave other regions in western Anbar to reinforce Baghdad.”We want the same thing. I want to go home to my wife,” Graves, of Killeen, Texas, said he told Hit officials when his unit, the 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division, arrived here in February. The goal, Graves said, is for U.S. forces to leave Hit proper and patrol only the main highway passing by the town.Another U.S. officer put it more bluntly: “Nobody wants us here, so why are we here? That’s the big question,” said Maj. Brent E. Lilly. Lilly leads a Marine civil affairs team that has disbursed many thousands of dollars for damage claims and projects in Hit, but is still mortared almost daily. “If we leave, all the attacks would stop, because we’d be gone.”Lying 35 miles upriver from Anbar’s capital of Ramadi, Hit is an ancient city known for its tar deposits and relatively educated population. But more than two years of warfare have dragged the town of 40,000 people back to the pre-industrial age.All phone systems in Hit have been destroyed. The war has shut down industry, so at least 50 percent of the people are jobless and a quarter live in poverty. The town’s bank holds no money. Fuel is scarce, and most of what is available is sold by insurgents at black-market prices, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. The police disbanded more than a year ago and Hit still has no officers on the job, although a new force is in training.Conditions in the city are so bad that Hit’s mayor recently asked the U.S. military to send him to Abu Ghraib prison – “just for the summer,” he told one U.S. officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “You have air conditioning, three meals a day, soccer balls. Abu Ghraib is a nice place,” the mayor said, according to the U.S. officer.Asked about Hit, market dwellers vented frustration with the U.S. military. “The problem is with the Americans. They only bring problems,” said watermelon vendor Sefuab Ganiydum, 35. “Closing the bridge, the curfew, the hospital. It’s better for U.S. forces to leave the city,” he said. Pregnant women and other patients must cross the bridge to the hospital in wooden carts, he complained. At night, many are afraid they’ll be shot if they go.”Even the dead are taken by wheelbarrow,” added Mohammed Hussein, 30, at his cucumber stall.Akram Mushaan, 45, said the war has hurt business, as customers are few and many can’t afford to pay. Rather than let his melons spoil, he gives them away, he said, flipping through a book filled with IOUs.”What did we do to have all this suffering?” asked Ramsey Abdullah Hindi, 60, sitting outside a tea shop. Ignoring U.S. troops within earshot, he said Iraqis were justified to attack them. “They have a right to fight against the Americans because of their religion and the bad treatment. We will stand until the last,” he said somberly.1st Lt. Joshua Buchanan pressed on with the patrol, all too familiar with the gripes. “Everything’s our fault. I understand that,” he said.Lilly and other U.S. officers said they were increasingly persuaded that U.S. forces could withdraw outside the city with little military impact, even with only a rudimentary local government and Iraqi security force in Hit. While the Iraqi army contingent in Hit has shrunk to about 400 men, 60 percent of its strength, police officers recruited from outlying tribes are undergoing training.”If we do leave, the city will be a lot better and they’ll build it a lot better,” Lilly said.Lilly and other U.S. officers said they were increasingly persuaded that U.S. forces could withdraw outside the city with little military impact, even with only a rudimentary local government and Iraqi security force in Hit. While the Iraqi army contingent in Hit has shrunk to about 400 men, 60 percent of its strength, police officers recruited from outlying tribes are undergoing training.”If we do leave, the city will be a lot better and they’ll build it a lot better,” Lilly said.Pulling out U.S. forces would also mean reopening the Hit bridge to civilian traffic. American troops have held the bridge for more than a year since insurgents attacked it with a car bomb. “We don’t really gain anything from it,” said Maj. Michael Fadden, of Dayton, Ohio, the battalion’s operations officer.Added another U.S. officer, “If the insurgents want to blow up the bridge, damn it, let them!”


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