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From Iraq, Troops See Parallels In Katrina

National Guard troops stand around a man who refuses to get in a line for food and water 02 September, 2005, in New Orleans. AFP photo by Robert Sullivan.

Balad, Iraq (UPI) Sep 05, 2005
From 8,000 miles away, U.S. troops in Iraq are watching footage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with awe, concern and a little shame. "If anything I'm kind of embarrassed," said an officer. "We're supposed to be telling the Iraqis how to act and this is what's happening at home?"

A senior officer allowed that if he was forced to choose between New Orleans and Baghdad he'd prefer to take his chances in Baghdad.

On Friday, 1,000 National Guard troops and police executed a "clear and hold" mission on the New Orleans convention center. Once host to the 1988 Republican National Convention, the convention center was now unofficial host to thousands of refugees - squatters all - who were mixed in with criminals and thugs. There was no official government presence there.

Clear and hold is a tactic being used across Iraq as troops come across recalcitrant neighborhoods or cities rife with insurgents or terrorists where there is no effective U.S. presence. It's a way to start from scratch.

About 12 hours before the National Guard was clearing the convention center, the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment began a clear and hold operation in the town of Tall 'Afar.

Tall 'Afar is a small city between the Syrian border and Mosul where an entire neighborhood has been mostly off limits to American forces because of the number of insurgent fighters there. Venturing in for standard patrols or reconstruction projects was certain to draw sniper fire and ambush.

Tall 'Afar is believed by U.S. forces to be a way station for insurgents and foreign fighters entering from Syria to re-supply and organize before moving into other parts of Iraq.

In New Orleans, the clear-and-hold operation was delayed until Friday so the National Guard could enter with sufficient numbers to prevent any attempts at opposition, said National Guard Bureau chief Lt. Gen. Steven Blum at a Pentagon briefing Saturday. "Overmatch" is one way military commanders assure a positive outcome: show such force and numbers when they first enter anyone who would consider resisting is convinced of the futility.

"Had we gone in with less force it may have been challenged, innocents may have been caught in a fight between the Guard military police and those who did not want to be processed or apprehended, and we would put innocents' lives at risk," Blum said. "We had people that were evacuated from hotels, and tourists that were lumped together with some street thugs and some gang members that -- it was a potentially very dangerous situation."

No shots were fired but some people were stabbed, Blum said.

True to the clear-and-hold model employed most famously in Fallujah -- albeit with far more bloodshed - the convention center squatters were screened for drugs, weapons, alcohol or contraband and escorted back into the building.

"Now there's a controlled safe and secure environment and a shelter and a haven as they await movement out of that center for onward integration to their normal lives," Blum said.

Outside Tall 'Afar, the 3d ACR pitched large, air-conditioned tents on their base in preparation for an expected 20,000 refugees. Many town residents were expected to leave the area - as were many insurgents.

Traffic control points are set up to intercept and detained those who attempted to leave with weapons.

Like in New Orleans, the military hope in Tall 'Afar was to avoid blood shed. A battalion commander told UPI that, ideally, the entire troublesome southern neighborhood would clear out. This would allow a thorough search and destroy mission for weapons and bomb-making equipment. Those who wanted to come back into the city when the operation -- still ongoing -- was finished would be registered and issued ID cards. The ID cards, mandatory at all times, will allow U.S. and Iraqi troops to stop people in the streets during future patrols and check the names against the evolving list of insurgent suspects gleaned from interrogations and tips. It's a surprisingly effective tactic, if low-tech. Counter-insurgency is mostly long, slow leg work.

Blum said one of the reasons for the complete breakdown of order in New Orleans was that the police force of over 1,500 crumbled in the face of the storm and its aftermath, something seen repeatedly in Iraq when chaos threatened: when Baghdad fell, during the Fallujah uprising in April 2004, and in Mosul and across Ninevah province in November 2004.

At Saturday's press conference, Blum caveated future security in New Orleans in terms reminiscent of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's pragmatic discussion of Iraq.

"Will something ever go wrong in New Orleans? Sure. Things went wrong in New Orleans and every other populated area around in our country and around the world every day," he said. "But I think you'll see a return to normal levels very soon, perhaps in the next 24 hours."

Tall 'Afar will take longer.

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Washington (UPI) Sep 01, 2005
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