November 23, 2004
By Luke Baker
It began with U.S. troops busting through the doors of the wrong house.
Dozens of soldiers rammed the white gates of a well-to-do home in central Mosul early on Tuesday, detaining three Iraqi men, only to discover their target was a house with black gates.
"Four houses down," said the elderly homeowner patiently, his hands bound behind his back by yellow plastic cuffs.
"You've got the wrong people," he told the officer leading the operation in good English, his wife, daughter and two pyjama-clad grandchildren cowering alongside him, trying to avoid the glare from the spotlights on the soldiers' guns.
For the past 19 months, U.S. forces have carried out raids across Iraq, sometimes netting big targets and gathering key intelligence to help them combat the sort of mounting insurgency that swept through Mosul this month, routing the police force.
But Iraqis say the targets are often wrong, and heavy-handed tactics have created resentment and alienated ordinary people.
"Squad Two, get to the house three doors down with the black gates," Captain Robert Lackey ordered over the radio. Several heavily armed men with night-vision scopes attached to their helmets trotted out into the rain.
At the wrong house, the search went on, with soldiers overturning every room for evidence to link the family to Iraq's insurgency.
They turned up at least one AK-47 assault rifle -- common to nearly all Iraqi homes and generally permitted by U.S. forces -- and around $3,000, according to a U.S. investigator.
"That's a lot of money right there," he said, shaking his head, although wealthy Iraqis often keep sums of much more than $3,000 at home because banks are not trusted.
Down the road, soldiers were ramming open the gates of an upscale house. They were about to burst through the door when it opened. Inside were seven young women and six dazed children.
The men of the house were in a village outside Mosul for a few days, one of the women said in fluent English. The soldiers were looking for her father, a Mosul university professor.
"Is he a member of the Baath party?" Lackey asked her. "The Baath party that still exists?"
She replied that he wasn't any more, "that was ages ago". She pointed out her father was detained by U.S. troops in a previous raid and held for five months without charge.
At about 1 a.m. (2200 GMT) the phone rang in the kitchen. One of the women answered and quickly hung up. "Who was that? Was that your father?" asked a female soldier.
"No. It was the neighbours wondering what on earth is going on," said the woman, nodding towards the street, where several 20-tonne, eight-wheeled U.S. Stryker vehicles were positioned.
A search of the house turned up an AK-47 and a little money. A fatigues-clad Iraqi translator for U.S. forces smoked several cigarettes and put them out on the family's floor.
"Can I please have a receipt for my things?" said the daughter of the house as the soldiers prepared to leave.
"Absolutely," said Lackey, whipping out his receipt book and apologising for the inconvenience.
Back at base, the operation was declared a success.
"I feel bad that we didn't get the guy we were looking for," Lackey said. "But you know what, just his knowing that we've been by and that we're looking for him is likely to stop him getting up to his activities."
© Copyright Reuters 2004.