The Next Flashpoint in Iraq

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Hameed Rasheed / AP

Men stand at a scene of a suicide car bombing in Samarra, 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq.

The American troops found the body hanging from an electrical pole a short distance from the office of the new Iraqi security forces commander for the city, Gen. Adnon Thabit. Foot soldiers from the Iraqi national police sent to Samarra in recent weeks had killed the man that morning during a firefight with insurgents, roped him to the back of one of their blue and white trucks by the feet and then dragged him through the city for all to see before stringing him up. The Americans, who've been working with the national police to check sectarian tensions here, cut the corpse down, wrapped it in a body bag and sent it to a morgue on the main U.S. base in the area outside the city.

"I don't know what makes someone do that," said Capt. Buddy Ferris, the commander of the small U.S. outpost in Samarra. "Hatred?"

Later that day, Thabit expressed frustration over the episode to Ferris, whose compound adjoins the police headquarters. The forces from Baghdad were difficult to control, Thabit said. They had weak officers and undisciplined rank-and-file men. And Thabit feared that the incident would only worsen the image problem already troubling the predominantly Shi'ite national police in Samarra, an overwhelmingly Sunni city where the outsiders are widely suspected of ties to the Mahdi Army of militant Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al Sadr.

"They think all of them are militia," said Thabit, the commander personally appointed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to clean up Samarra in the wake of a second bombing of the Shi'ite Askariya mosque June 13. Immediately after the bombing, Maliki ordered roughly 900 national police to Samarra, where the local police force had collapsed. And more are supposed to be coming. As many as 1,500 new national police could be inside the city in the next few weeks. So far, they have not been well received by the people of Samarra. "To be honest, they fear us," Thabit says.

Samarra, a flashpoint of sectarian and insurgent violence in years past, is dangerously close to erupting again. Insurgent violence driven by Sunni extremists is on the rise in the city. In the past two months, insurgent attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces in Samarra have nearly doubled, U.S. commanders say, rising to an average of roughly two per day. And U.S. troops who patrol the city say insurgents are operating in greater numbers than in months past.

Previously fighters would move through the streets of Samarra in twos and threes. These days groups as large as a dozen or more gather to stage attacks, sometimes driving pickup gun-trucks. U.S. commanders fear that the arrival of the security forces from Baghdad could lead to even more violence in the city, as sectarianism takes root alongside increasing insurgent activity. The weeks ahead could be pivotal. On June 16, Sadr urged Shi'ites to join an annual Shi'ite pilgrimage to Samarra the first week of July. Since then rumors that Sadr himself may appear in Samarra have circulated throughout the city, ratcheting up tensions further still.

Despite all this, Thabit believes he can quickly regain control of Samarra, where gunfights break out almost daily as insurgents target U.S. and Iraqi forces. Thabit says he needs 20 days to get the situation under control. But already he is losing ground.

The fighting that killed the insurgent later publicly hung began when guerillas attacked a newly established police outpost on the eastern side of the city. The police fought off the attackers but then abandoned the post later in the day, fearing another assault they could not stop. American trainers pressed the police to return to the station. They did, only to find it destroyed. Insurgents entered the building in the time the police were gone, rigged the structure with explosives and demolished it. Now the only police presence in Samarra away from the American base is a small outpost in the city center called Uvanni, an old school building strewn with trash and junked vehicles. Ferris and some of his men visited the police station Sunday and organized a joint patrol, which he felt went well. Still, Ferris doubts Thabit's ability to turn things around in Samarra as soon as he hopes.

"We can't do this in 20 days," Ferris said. "We'll be working on this for a while."