Video: Hot-line center

By Producer
NBC News
updated 4/26/2005 2:09:38 PM ET 2005-04-26T18:09:38

Deep in the heart of Camp Liberty, not far from Baghdad International Airport and situated in an unassuming building on Saddam Hussein’s famed game reserve, is one of the 3rd Infantry Division's strategic weapons against the insurgency — a hot line for tips.

During a recent visit, one of many phones rang on Frank's desk. He picked up the receiver and in Arabic answered, "Allo.”

Within seconds he was trying to calm down an excited man. Frank, whose last name is not  used to protect his security, reassured the caller that all the information would remain anonymous.

"My brother, you are talking with the U.S. military. Your name is safe with us. Don't worry, I promise," said Frank as he scribbled the information down on a pad.

Frank explained that most of the people who call are scared. They have even hung up on him in mid-conversation because someone has entered the room as they made their call. 

Frank hails from Arizona. He emigrated from Iraq to the United States in the late ’60s. He was enjoying his retirement until 9/11, when he felt it was his patriotic duty to help out his adopted country. When the U.S. military began recruiting Arabic translators, Frank joined the military as a subcontractor and now finds himself back in Iraq.

New avenue in the battle against insurgents
Television commercials, billboards, business cards and even keychains are used to promote the telephone hot-line campaign in Iraq.

"It allows Iraqi people, who might not be comfortable with the newly established Iraqi police or Iraqi army, an avenue to give information. They want to help. They want to do something,” said Sgt. Maj. Jerry Craig. He runs the Joint Coordination Cell, the official military name of the hot-line center.

Craig spoke highly of his unit, lavishing praise on his translators. He said the unit receives 50-60 calls a day. About 15 of those calls deliver some type of a result. The Joint Coordination Cell launched the first operational hot line last August. With its success, other bases have instituted call centers around the country.

Meantime, Frank passed along the latest information to Sgt. Owen, his military liaison. The sergeant, sitting in front of three computer screens, accesses information across Iraq.

"This man called about a suspicious-looking vehicle,” Frank told Owen. They discussed the nature of the call and decided to pass the information to the Iraqi National Guard.

"We still get the majority of our information from our respective intelligence units," a top colonel at the unit said. "But these calls are very important in our fight against the insurgency."

Feedback averts attacks
Since the hot-line information travels only in one direction, the unit rarely knows the outcome of the work, with a few exceptions.

One day a woman reported two roadside bombs in her neighborhood. The exact location was not readily discernible. Some time later as a joint Iraqi-U.S. military patrol was walking in a neighborhood in Baghdad, a roadside bomb exploded.

The woman called back to find out why no one had listened to her report. The unit immediately had the patrol contacted. It moved to a safe place and had the second explosive disarmed.

Since the election in January, ordinary people have started to fight back against the insurgency. Various cities around the country held anti-insurgency rallies. In Baghdad reports of people taking on insurgents, sometimes engaging in gun battles, began to surface. Citizens even took on kidnappers, the newest criminal scourge. 

“The key to breaking the back of the insurgency is the involvement of the Iraqi people. They are tired of what’s going on here, and this is a way to stop it,” Craig said.

Tip leads to arrest in helicopter investigation
The change in sentiment was best illustrated after a commercial chartered helicopter was downed on April 21, killing 10 people on board, including six American security personnel. In addition, an insurgency videotape showed gunmen killing a Bulgarian pilot who survived the crash.

Shortly after the incident, an anonymous caller’s tip led to the arrest of 10 suspects.

For Frank, the translator, the best moment was when he received a call from a man who told him that he knew the location of a house where six people were being held hostage. The caller only had a description of the house. Painstakingly, Frank had the man map out the address.

He immediately informed the Iraqi National Guard, which fanned out through the city and located the house. In a midnight raid, the guard stormed the house and was able to rescue all the hostages alive.

Frank said with some satisfaction, “For sure that day I felt good.”

Babak Behnam is an NBC News producer on assignment in Baghdad.


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