U.S. troops face a difficult task in trying to root out the violent insurgents who want to drive them out of Iraq. But in pursuing this deadly enemy, the Americans are frequently guilty of excesses that are turning ordinary Iraqis into foes. Bush's Thanksgiving visit meant little to Iraqis, who cite three areas of concern: the killing of innocents, the "disappearance" of countrymen detained by U.S. forces, and the destruction of buildings, including family homes. The last tactic, justified by U.S. commanders as legitimate demolition of military targets, is criticized by human-rights groups like Amnesty International as smacking of collective punishment. As U.S. forces employ more aggressive tactics to take on the resistance, these grievances are only getting worse, setting back the effort to win over local hearts and minds. "Before the Americans came, we heard a lot about their respect for human rights," says Khalid Mustafa Akbar, at a mourning tent for his three brothers who were shot dead while driving their pickup by a U.S. patrol outside Tikrit last week. "But then we found it is only talk."
It's hard to say how many Iraqi civilians have been killed in the fighting. The U.S. military does not track civilian casualties in wartime. Iraqi hospital records are unreliable, and because Iraqi Muslims usually bury their dead swiftly, deaths are not always recorded. The Project on Defense Alternatives in Cambridge, Mass., estimates that about 200 Iraqi noncombatants have been victims of coalition firepower since May 1, when President Bush announced the end of major hostilities.
The widespread arrests and detentions are no less troubling to Iraqis. U.S. officials last week said they are holding roughly 5,000 "suspected terrorists" in custody in Iraq, including 300 with foreign passports. But the officials aren't always able to say where the detainees are, frustrating Iraqis desperately looking for friends or family members who have disappeared. The last time Raed Karim al-Ani saw his brother Mohammed, 27, was in mid-May, when the taxi driver climbed into his battered 1983 Volkswagen and chugged out the driveway of his parents' house. In early July two men came to the house with Mohammed's ID card and car, and said they had seen U.S. soldiers pin him to the ground at a checkpoint, then haul him away.
Raed, who had already checked Baghdad's morgues, drove the next day to a U.S. military base to ask if his brother was being held there. An Iraqi translator suggested he try the detention center at Baghdad international airport, where a soldier told Raed to return the next day to another entrance. There, hundreds of Iraqis stood for hours in 120º heat, searching for relatives. Finally, an American woman tapped Mohammed's name into a laptop computer but came up with nothing. She told Raed to try the Republican Palace; there a U.S. soldier turned him back. Overhearing his plight, an Iraqi driver directed Raed to a place on the bank of the Tigris where hundreds of Iraqis were scouring lists of names pasted to the walls of a building. "I realized these were relatives of Saddam's prisoners who had been executed before the war," Raed says with a bitter laugh. "Their names had just been released." Iraqi families looking for missing relatives sense echoes of Saddam's era. "At least in Saddam's days, the police would tell families they had arrested their people," says Mohammed's mother Khalida Ahmed al-Salehy.
Asked by TIME about Mohammed's case, a U.S. military official in Baghdad replied by e-mail that there was a surefire place to check: the master list of detainees' names that every police station now has. Armed with this answer, Mohammed's brother Adil went to al-Jihad police station near the family home last week and asked for the list. The lieutenant on duty drew a blank, saying he had no knowledge of one.
A U.S. intelligence official in Iraq says even he has trouble locating detainees he wants to talk to or get released. "There's no accurate list," he told TIME. "It's a big problem." It may also be a violation of the Geneva Conventions. "There is a responsibility to at least notify families that someone is arrested," says Florian Westphal, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, which monitors the conventions worldwide.
The Geneva accords also prohibit occupying powers from destroying property, unless it "is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations." Around Tikrit this month, U.S. forces demolished more than a dozen facilities, most of which were private homes. Colonel James Hickey, 1st Brigade commander in charge of the area, told TIME that every targeted house had been either a source of direct fire on coalition troops or had been used to store weapons.
Some property owners take issue with that claim. One is Laith Klabos, 22, who grows apricots in Boasil village. On the night of Nov. 19, U.S. soldiers wrecked his family's house and flattened their grove of fruit trees. Klabos insists his family had no weapons and was not helping the resistance. "Is this the democracy they promised us?" he asked. "They come and blow up our houses?"