A DEADLY FACE OFF

Iraq is almost under control. The men in charge are trying to pretend so, anyway. But after the past two weeks of bloodshed, "control" is a slippery term. When the worst of the violence ended, a total of 90 U.S. and Coalition fighters were dead--nearly as many as died in the first two weeks of the war. Now a creepy sort of calm has descended on the country's Shiite areas. Late last week Iranian mediators and moderate Iraqi clerics were still haggling with aides of the renegade cleric Moqtada al-Sadr over the terms for an end to his uprising. U.S. Marines were no closer to subduing the city of Fallujah, despite the deaths of several hundred Iraqis there. Insurgents released a videotape of an American prisoner, Pfc. Keith Maupin, surrounded by masked gunmen. Meanwhile Washington ordered a 90-day extension for 20,000 U.S. soldiers who had dreamed of going home after a year of duty. "We're deeply concerned about the current crisis," said one Coalition official. Then he caught himself. "It's not a crisis yet. You didn't hear me say that."

The really worrisome part isn't the shooting war. It's the long, hard strategic struggle for Iraq's hearts and minds. The whole idea of a peaceful transfer of power depends on winning the public's support and cooperation. To see how that job is going, just look at the breathtaking disintegration of Iraq's reconstituted security forces. Before the uprising, America had spent roughly $1 billion to recruit, equip and train some 100,000 Iraqi police, soldiers and civil-defense personnel. But when the fighting started, many of them evaporated--and others wasted no time joining the revolt. Coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt did his best to put a positive face on the situation last week, saying Iraqi police were back on duty in "many towns." Nevertheless, he had to admit, "there were a number of troops [and] police that didn't stand up when their country called."

Consider the 620 members of the New Iraqi Army's 2d Battalion, one of four such military units that Coalition forces had recently trained and put into active service. After fighting broke out in southern Iraq and Baghdad's Sadr City on April 4, the battalion was deployed to Shulla, another hardscrabble Shiite slum on the capital's outskirts. One of the battalion's recruits, Khadhim al Zubaidy, says he balked when his U.S. officers ordered him to open fire on a crowd of angry Shiites, many of them presumably armed. "We weren't asked beforehand to fight our people in Shulla," he told NEWSWEEK. "[If we had been], we would have resigned." Many battalion members dropped their guns and fled, says a fellow soldier, Hamid Tamimi. Others reportedly turned their weapons against the Americans--especially after being told the battalion's next assignment would be combat duty in Fallujah.

That besieged city has become a sore topic with many Iraqis. Community leaders met with U.S. negotiators last week under a troubled ceasefire, but U.S. Marines still swore to find and punish the killers of four American civilians. The local hospital's director estimated that as many as 600 "martyrs" had been killed--mostly women and children, he claimed. Coalition spokesmen did not dispute the overall body count but insisted that most of the dead were combatants. "What I think you'll find is 95 percent of those were military-age males that were killed in the fighting," says Marine Lt. Col. Brendan Byrne. "The Marines are trained to be very precise in their firepower." For many Iraqis, 95 percent isn't good enough. "How many fours are killed now?" asks Ahmed Abbas, 28, a Baghdad civil engineer who supported the occupation until recently. "How many [times] four children, four women, four innocent youths? Is this American justice?"

U.S. civil-affairs and psychological- operations teams can't help feeling overwhelmed. Their job is to convince people that the Coalition and its handpicked Governing Council have credibility and are working to make Iraqis' lives better. In Sadr City, that task--among many others--belongs to Lt. Col. Gary Volesky of the First Cavalry Division's 5th Battalion, 2d Cavalry. After liberation, the slum's residents renamed the place in honor of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, the renegade cleric's father, who was killed in 1999 after speaking out against Saddam Hussein. These days Volesky estimates that 90 percent of its inhabitants have nothing against the Coalition. "[Moqtada al-] Sadr has the support of under 10 percent," he adds. "But ten percent of 2.5 million--that's still a lot of people."

Volesky has his own idea of what it will take to win the war: safe streets, reliable public services and steady paychecks. "The people are the center of gravity," he says. "You can't control the center of gravity with Bradleys and tanks." But even the most basic needs can be all but impossible to fill. Even before the recent uprising, Sadr City had only 500 Iraqi police. "We needed 7,000," Volesky says. "That's a tall hill to climb." It got even taller when the Mahdi Army's rebels stormed the district's police stations on April 4. Iraqi police held their ground at only two of them; at least five were quickly abandoned.

The casualty toll that day among U.S. soldiers was seven dead and at least 24 wounded. One after another, patrols were lured into ambushes near al-Sadr's local headquarters. Many of the troops who came under fire had been in Iraq less than a week. Volesky had formally taken command just 15 minutes before the attack. "It was just like that movie 'Black Hawk Down'," says one of the drivers, Specialist Dee Foster. Volesky has a different take: "It wasn't like Somalia," he asserts. "We recovered all our people, and we went right back in." The Americans pushed the rebels back, then parked their tanks and Bradleys in front of the district's police facilities for the next four days.

Last week Volesky's troops were out taking care of the public-works jobs they had been sent to Iraq for. People on the street didn't seem particularly hostile as the Humvees passed. Appearances don't mean much, one soldier grumbled. "The same kids who give us the thumbs up and say, 'Good, mister!' are the guys chucking rocks at our convoys." One civil-affairs team drove downtown to check on a newly launched $1.1 million trash-collection project employing 62 laborers who'll earn $6 a day--good money by local standards. Arriving at a stretch of boulevard where the median was uncharacteristically clear of trash, the six-Humvee convoy pulled to a stop. Several young Iraqis were shoveling garbage into piles. Capt. Jeff Embree, the team leader, had a question for the contractor in charge: what happened to the banners depicting U.S. and Iraqi flags that were supposed to be draped on the crew's trucks? The contractor shrugged: "The truck drivers have been shot at for the past two days, so we took the banners off."

Such obstacles make it even tougher for U.S. forces to show they're trying to help. The message is an urgent one. "The Americans won the war, but they couldn't win the peace," comments Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the Governing Council. "They lost a lot of support among the Iraqis because of the way they act and deal with things. There is a loss of dignity. This is the main thing: people feel humiliated." Kurdish troops stood fast during the uprising, even as Shiite and Sunni Arab members of the security forces were breaking ranks all around them.

For now, some Coalition leaders can only hide behind euphemisms. A senior general insisted on the term "command failure" instead of "mutiny" to describe the 2d Battalion's mass desertions and defections. U.S. officers are busy weeding out Iraqi soldiers or police suspected of being turncoats. "About 70 Iraqi troops were left barefoot, without any clothes, outside their camp," says Saba Majeed, a villager near the 2d Battalion's home base in Taji, 15 miles north of Baghdad. Iraqi Lt. Wissam al-Majmai, a guard at the base, confirmed that account. The disciplinary action didn't ease the shortage of local security forces or boost anyone's sense of dignity. The question is whether it will strengthen--or weaken--loyalties next time.

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