In Ras al-Koor, the Iraqi Police Is More Feared than U.S. Soldiers

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Warrick Page / Iraq

A US soldier on patrol in Mosul, Iraq.

In the parlance of the U.S. Army, a hand-grenade explosion is a "significant act." So are small arms fire, improvised explosive device detonation and car bombs. The daily number of "sig acts," as the soldiers call them, is sometimes used as a metric to measure progress or regression in the counter-insurgency effort in Iraq. The definition of a sig act, however, is not fixed. According to some soldiers, some sig acts today (those without fatalities, say) never would have been considered as such a year or two ago. And the value of the metric is a matter of contention, even on the record, among battalion commanders. The Lieutenant Colonel responsible for East Mosul says it is an excellent, valuable metric for progress, while his counterpart in West Mosul says the opposite. (See pictures of the U.S. military's struggle to retain control of Mosul.)

The neighborhood in Mosul (and Iraq) that likely has the most sig acts per day is Ras al-Koor. It is also Mosul's oldest neighborhood. On a clear afternoon in the week of the Prophet Mohammed's 1431st birthday, the week before the sixth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an American infantry platoon was walking a loop around the neighborhood.

"It's like clockwork," says Lieutenant Richard Kim, 24, of Chicago, leading the foot patrol. Kim is a soft-spoken officer on his first tour. He had always wanted to be a soldier. "Twenty-five to 30 minutes after we get here, they come after us."

He was exactly right. After 30 minutes of walking through the uneven, sepia alleys of Ras al-Koor, his patrol opened fire as a grenade bounced up to the rear guard and then exploded, perhaps 10 meters from the closest man. None of the soldiers were injured, and, even as our ears rang, they very professionally split into groups and bolted after the thrower.

Around the corner, the soldier who had been closest to the explosion, Private First Class Ratu Waqa Mawi, 26, of Fiji, called out. "This place," he said, jabbing his gun at a large stone house. "I saw him go in there." After his sergeant blew the lock off the door with a shotgun, "Maui Wowy" as he is known, raced into the house, screaming with fury. In a cool, dim room, he found his attacker — a 19-year old with a pubescent mustache, in a red and black Real Madrid tracksuit — sitting on a couch between two older women. As the women began to scream, Maui picked up the young man and hurled him to the floor, yelling obscenities and threats until Kim told him to calm down and go outside. The other soldiers set up guard around the house as the young man's father cried in English that "something is wrong, something is wrong."

As the women stopped screaming, the soldiers zip-cuffed the young man and led him into the street. They made him kneel against a wall and swabbed his hands and pockets for residual explosive materials. The test came up positive. Back in the house, a sergeant pointed this out to the young man's father, who continued to insist that there had been some mistake. "But we saw him, too, guy," said the sergeant.

The father would not be dissuaded. Graying and well dressed, he produced his Baghdad Bar Association membership card. "I am a professor of Law at the university," he said, and showed that identification also. "I am astonished this has happened. He was inside, eating. Smell his breath!"

He repeated his protests until the soldiers loaded their detainee into an armored personnel carrier and drove him to a nearby Iraqi National Police station. The stated mission of the U.S. Military in Iraq is to support and advise the fledgling Iraqi security forces. All detainees, therefore, are supposed to be processed through the Iraqi Army or Police, of which there are several, often competing, varieties, national and local.

At the station, Kim sat the young man down on the floor of commanding officer Lieutenant Karim's office and began to question him, in tandem with the Iraqis. A television played a muted Arabic melodrama in the corner. The young man denied everything. His eyes darted, periodically, to a length of rubber tubing leaning against Karim's desk. As the questioning continued, the Iraqis occasionally passed the tubing back and forth, and one of them whispered something in the young man's ear.

After an hour or so, Kim stood up and prepared to leave with his men. He told Karim he would be back to check on the detainee in the morning. The detainee raised his thin arms and called out to Kim's translator, Specialist Mohammed Houbban, 43, of Morocco by way of Orlando. "He was begging to come with us," said Spc. Houbban as he walked out of the station. "He did not want to be left with them. And he just tried to kill us." (Check out a story about the Iraqi government's Mosul offensive.)

The next day, Kim returned to the police station. Karim was in a good mood. He said that the detainee had been moved, but overnight he had helped the Iraqi police locate explosives that could kill civilians, and admitted, on videotape, to shooting an Iraqi Police officer in the back of the head. Kim relayed this information up to his commanders and down to his men. All were pleased about the way this particular significant action had played out. It was the first time that Kim's platoon had managed to chase down and apprehend an attacker in Ras al-Koor. "It was a joyful moment for us," said Sgt. Keith Ussery, 32, of Columbus, Missouri, "because we've been getting hit so much for the last few weeks. What we're worried about is, is justice gonna get served?"

This remains to be seen. In the days following the attack, the Iraqi National Police told Kim that the detainee would be sent to Baghdad for trial. They also volunteered that, under questioning, the detainee's father was "not shocked whatsoever about his son; rather, he was upset that his son admitted to committing the crimes." "Other than that," reported Kim, "nothing new has taken place." He planned a return to Ras al-Koor to search the young man's house again. He has also decided to put Pfc. Maqi up for a medal.

See a story about Iraqi reaction to the sentencing of the shoe-thrower.

See a story about Iraq's unspeakable crime: Mother's pimping daughters.