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An ambush on U.S. troops and an election

While President Bush and Iraq's interim leadership insist that the country's first free elections are going to be held on schedule, two days of patrolling Iraq's third-largest city with U.S. forces suggests that the security necessary for that to happen remains a distant goal.
Iraqi man chants near burning vehicle in Mosul
A masked Iraqi man holds up his rifle as he celebrates near a burning National Guard vehicle following an attack in the northern city of Mosul o Dec. 9.Reuters
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Weaving through the open-air market in this old city on the Tigris River, Lt. Scott Smiley stopped to chat Thursday with a few men sipping tea outside stalls conspicuously empty of customers. Sides of beef swung from hooks next door, and the singsong chant of the muezzin filled the early afternoon.

"The coalition must provide security here — there is no security," Saeb Salih Mohammed, a graying 40-year-old, told Smiley, explaining why his bins of nuts remained untouched and why he would not vote in elections scheduled for next month. "Otherwise, how do we do this?"

Smiley, a blue-eyed 24-year-old from Pasco, Wash., assured Salih Mohammed that help was on the way from the novice Iraqi security forces now being trained by U.S. soldiers. Moments later, as Smiley paused to talk to a merchant with a shop full of flour sacks, the popcorn crackle of automatic-rifle fire sounded from where his platoon stood guard at the end of the street. Hunched, he ran into the emptying avenue, reaching his men to find a pool of bright blood beneath the wheels of one armored vehicle. A sergeant had been wounded.

For the next 20 minutes, Smiley's platoon engaged an invisible enemy on Mosul's streets in the kind of clattering midafternoon gunfight that has become commonplace here in recent weeks. The ensuing chase led Smiley's men and a small Iraqi National Guard contingent into a sophisticated ambush — and exposed the risks facing U.S. soldiers here and across Iraq as they struggle to face down a determined insurgency before the Jan. 30 elections.

"Someone has to stand up," Smiley said after fighting for much of the afternoon. "Otherwise, they will continue to be ruled just as they were for all the years of Saddam."

While President Bush and Iraq's interim leadership insist that the country's first free elections are going to be held on schedule, two days of patrolling Iraq's third-largest city with U.S. forces suggests that the security necessary for that to happen remains a distant goal. U.S. troops come under daily attack from insurgents determined to derail the voting. Meanwhile, fledgling Iraqi security forces — meant to put a local face on the military presence and win over fearful civilians — are a shambles.

The daunting obstacles to establishing security were on display Thursday. As soon as the shots rang out, Smiley bolted toward the gathering fight. Crouching behind Stryker assault vehicles, the soldiers at the end of the avenue fired into a dun-colored building on the far side of a busy traffic circle. But in the confusion that followed the sudden attack, many of the men were unsure where the shots had come from. The Iraqi National Guardsmen blazed away with AK-47 assault rifles, obscuring the origin of the assault.

Another set of soldiers took up positions behind Smiley's men, keeping curious Iraqis away with shouts and menacing waves of their rifles.

Inside one Stryker, a medic bandaged the left arm of Sgt. Chauncey Spregner, who was suffering from arterial bleeding. Outside was a bright red puddle of blood. Over the radio linking the platoon leaders came the medic's voice.

"We have about 45 minutes," the medic told Smiley, whose men were urging him to take the fight down an alley where the insurgents may have run.

Angry and frustrated over Spregner's wounding, nine soldiers loaded into another Stryker and vowed revenge. Rushing out the back hatch moments later, the men stormed a three-story building where they suspected the insurgents might be. But the only person they encountered with their rifles raised to eye level was an 8-year-old boy. He asked them for candy.

Expressing irritation over the ambush and losing the attackers, Staff Sgt. Dustin Holcomb, 25, of Loma Rica, Calif., said, "They are our biggest liability," referring to the Iraqi National Guardsmen. Another soldier grumbled, "These guys are awful."

The convoy rolled, spinning around the Yarmouk circle in thinning traffic.

"I just wasn't ready for that," said Spec. Christopher Muse, 20, of Glendale, Calif., referring to the ambush as the Stryker buzzed along.

A rush of wounded
Moments later, a chest-thumping blast rocked the Stryker's 19 tons, and black smoke obscured the blue sky above the open hatch. Sgt. Donald Kraft, a 22-year-old from Stockton, Calif., who had been standing in the hatch, dipped into the stuffy Stryker with a slightly blackened face.

"Am I all here?" he asked.

About 20 feet away, an improvised bomb had detonated near the pickup truck carrying the National Guardsmen, leaving it a fireball. Automatic-rifle fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds rained down on the convoy, and the Strykers fired back with the deep hum of their rooftop .50-caliber machine guns. Clouds of dust erupted from a row of mud-brick houses 50 yards away.

Within minutes, the camouflaged legs and arms of petrified Iraqi guardsmen jutted through the Stryker's hatch as the wounded men desperately sought cover. Seven wounded Iraqis spilled into the Stryker, whose submarine-like interior filled with the smell of fresh blood, singed hair and burned skin.

After criticizing them sharply only moments earlier, the U.S. soldiers now set about busily bandaging the terrified Iraqis, who lay on the narrow strip of floor between benches or hunched under the control panel. One held his head in his hand, blood dripping off the tip of his nose into a dark mustache. He stared at the floor.

The wounded pressed into the Stryker, and the whole team shifted to make space. This correspondent tied a bandage around the head of one Iraqi, who soon after went into shock. His black vinyl jacket had been singed by the blast and was smoldering. I doused a small flame with my hands. Blood spilled onto the floor, staining my pants and the camouflage of the others inside. I helped to pick the wounded off the floor and get them outside when the critically injured were transferred to another vehicle.

The U.S. soldiers gave the guardsmen water and tried to calm them. But they shared no common language, so gratitude was expressed in different ways. One guardsman, bleeding from behind his ear, tried to kiss Muse on the cheeks. The young soldier pulled away.

Mortar rounds began landing within 30 yards of the Strykers, keeping U.S. soldiers from retrieving what appeared to be the body of an Iraqi guardsmen still inside the flaming truck. U.S. officials said later that a dozen guardsmen had been wounded — several critically — but some soldiers said the one that remained inside the truck was dead.

A half-hour later, the Strykers reached an Army field hospital, where doctors awaited the wounded as they limped off or were carried out of the vehicles. The U.S. soldiers loaded back up, restocking the convoy with ammunition and bandages. After a 10-minute break for cigarettes and PowerBars, the men ducked into the Strykers again and headed back to the traffic circle.

Struggle to secure vote
In the past month, more than 160 bodies have been discovered in and around Mosul, the commercial and cultural heart of northern Iraq. Many of them are believed to be the mutilated remains of U.S.-trained Iraqi National Guardsmen, an often tough if unskilled force struggling to fight alongside U.S. troops.

U.S. military officials say only several hundred U.S.-trained police officers remain in this city of 1.2 million people after the force largely dissolved in the face of insurgent attacks a month ago. Ideally, U.S. officials say, 4,000 to 5,000 police officers will be on the force by election day. But they acknowledge that they will be lucky to have 1,200, stationed in a series of desolate compounds manned now by squads of U.S. soldiers.

This week, one U.S. soldier was severely wounded when mortar fire pounded a station in west Mosul, the volatile Arab half of a city with a sizable Kurdish population. On the same day, after less than a month on the job, Mosul's police chief resigned in fear.

"The security is going to have to come from the Iraqi National Guard because the police force is absolutely incapable," said Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla, 38, of Minneapolis, commander of the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Division's 1st Brigade, which is responsible for west Mosul. "We're going to be the guys behind the scenes with the big stick."

The insurgency's campaign against Iraqi security forces, steady strikes against U.S. troops and blanket threats against Iraqis who participate in the elections have set back planning for the vote. Every Iraqi who received monthly food rations under Saddam Hussein — roughly 80 percent of the voting-age population — is automatically registered. But Kurilla and other U.S. officials say information about the elections, which will select a 275-member National Assembly that will appoint a new government and oversee the drafting of a constitution, has reached hardly any Mosul residents.

U.S. military officials have yet to identify the Mosul representative of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, and no voter instruction booths now appearing in other cities have opened here. Last month, insurgents torched the election materials sent from Baghdad to help with voter registration.

The risky, round-the-clock military effort to secure this city is being carried out by several companies responsible for west Mosul, far and away the most violent district. For the January vote to be perceived as credible, Sunni Muslims here will likely have to cast votes in large numbers or at least be free to do so, and that will depend largely on the progress of the U.S. military in the next six weeks.

"Any success on our part to show government control is a failure on their part," Maj. Mark Bieger, 35, the battalion's intelligence officer, said of the insurgents. "It's tough. We've got to establish security as best we can, we've got to establish control and, more important, we've got to communicate that control to the people."

The 24th Infantry Regiment arrived in October and, within weeks, faced an insurgent assault that drove off more than three-quarters of the city's police force. Kurilla, a big, bluff commander with a napalm-in-the-morning swagger, said his soldiers killed scores of militants in early November. The insurgents, a mix of former Iraqi military officers, Islamic radicals and a few foreign Arab fighters, carried out a grisly campaign to isolate U.S. forces from any would-be Iraqi supporters.

Most of the Iraqi National Guardsmen whose bodies have been discovered in wastelands on the city's edge were leaving posts after payday, heading to rural homes to settle bills in a country without a working banking system. The insurgents' deadly campaign has become part of the black humor common among the troops here: Before heading out on a midnight search mission this week, two young soldiers played rock-paper-scissors to determine who would have to put any discovered corpse in the body bag strapped to the roof.

The elections have barely registered in the frightened day-to-day life of most people here. Kurilla said that Iraqi guardsmen are distributing pamphlets about the vote but that U.S. soldiers are prohibited from discussing it with people on the streets for fear of being accused of trying to influence the outcome.

"We're trying to figure out what they know, and what we have found out is that they don't know anything about it at all," Kurilla said.