The tip came in fast, terse and discreet. Maj. Mohammed Salman Abass Ali al-Zobaidi of the Iraqi National Guard scrolled down to read it: “Black four-door Excalibur. Behind cinema.”
From cell phone screen to local authorities: Acting on the recent text message tip to the Iraqi National Guard commander, police in a nearby town tracked down a black car behind the theater, and arrested the driver for suspected links to insurgent attacks.
In the volatile Shiite-Sunni towns south of Baghdad known as the “triangle of death,” Iraqi civilians increasingly are letting their thumbs do the talking, via Arabic text messages sent from the safety of their homes, Iraqi security forces and U.S. Marines say.
At a time when U.S. and Iraqi security forces are desperate for information on attacks — preferably in advance — mobile phone text messages allow civilians to pass on information from a discreet distance, their identities shielded from security forces and their neighbors.
Safety in anonymity
Although a cell phone displays the caller’s number, phone records are so chaotic in Iraq that chances are slim anyone could track down a tipster. And text messages can be sent to the most trusted officer, a far safer avenue than calling a police station that might be riddled with informants.
“Many, many people tell us about the terrorists with this,” al-Zobaidi said, tapping his black cell phone and thumbing down to show more messages.
“All the time, I hear his phone — beep beep beep beep, beep beep beep beep,” said Sgt. Eddie Risner of Ocala, Fla., part of a Marine contingent working with guardsmen to try to block attacks and put a credible Iraqi security force on the street.
Iskandariyah, a mixed Shiite-Sunni city of about 100,000 that controls major transport links between Baghdad and southern Iraq, became notorious last year for its frequent bombings. Marines recorded as many as 200 car bombs and other attacks in a month, including a single bomb last spring that killed dozens of Iraqi recruits.
Insurgency hot line
U.S. and Iraqi officials insist they are getting more tips from Iraqis about insurgent activity since the Americans transferred sovereignty to an interim government last June. Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib said recently that calls to an insurgency hot line have produced a number of arrests, although officials refuse to give figures.
In Iskandariyah, Marines of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit say they’ve halved the daily attack rate — in large part through constant patrols devoted to hunts for bombs, weapons caches and possible insurgents.
On this day, Marines found three bombs the hard way — by running across them on patrols, and by having at least one blow up as they drove by. There were no injuries.
The fourth bomb of the day was the biggest: a vehicle packed with 10 to 15 100mm mortar rounds.
Marines found that the easy way — a teenager tipped off Iraqi police, who called the Marines. The Americans blew up the bomb remotely, creating a blast that stopped pedestrians and sent flocks of startled birds into the air.
Marines befriended the teenager later at a police station. It’s the tips and the cooperation with local security forces that Marines want to encourage, they said.
But few Iraqi civilians want to risk being seen as informants.
That’s where text messaging comes in.
“That way, they’re not seen leaving their homes,” said Marine Sgt. Justin Walsh of Cleveland.
Al-Zobaidi, the Iraqi National Guard local commander, put up fliers when he took the position, succeeding a brother who had been assassinated in the same post.
The fliers had al-Zobaidi’s cell number and encouraged residents to get in touch if they knew of impending attacks.
The message is still getting out. In Iskandariyah on Friday, Marines urged a group of men on a street corner to come forward with information. One looked reluctant, and drew his hand across his throat to show why he wouldn’t be providing his name.
“Do you have the chief of police’s cell number?” he asked.