Army psych unit tries to persuade Iraqi insurgents fight is over
JASON KEYSER, Associated Press Writer
Monday, January 5, 2004
(01-05) 22:52 PST TIKRIT, Iraq (AP) --
At an open-air market in Saddam Hussein's hometown, an American soldier wades into a mistrustful crowd and hands out flyers seeking information on the fallen dictator's fugitive deputy -- a display meant to demoralize insurgents. One man tears it up with a menacing smile.
At the same time, soldiers from the U.S. Army's Psychological Operations unit are trying with limited success to get fellow soldiers to erase threatening messages painted on battle gear and ease their treatment of Iraqi residents during nighttime raids.
Beneath the surface of Iraq's conflict, soldiers from Psychological Operations, or "psyop," are trying to reduce the friction between coalition forces and the Iraqi people. In three-man teams, soldiers from the unit talk with Iraqi police, elders, religious leaders, teachers, and other civilians to win cooperation and help in persuading insurgents to give up. They also try to inform fellow soldiers about ways to build trust with local Iraqis.
"In the worst case scenario we want Iraqis to see us as a necessary evil. In the best case, we are a solution," said Sgt. Ervin Willis, from the Army's 362nd Psychological Operations Company, which supports the 4th Infantry Division in Tikrit.
Willis, a 35-year-old Arabic speaker, is one of dozens of "psyop" soldiers trying to bolster America's image across Iraq, partly by talking with commanders about how soldiers can minimize the anger left in the wake of raids.
One lesson Willis has taken back to soldiers heading out on nighttime operations is to show more respect for cultural values while searching homes for weapons and suspects, in particular, to respect women's privacy by allowing them to gather in a separate room.
"Women have begged soldiers not to come into their rooms," Willis said. "And the soldiers think, 'Oh, they're hiding something.' No man, they're just in their night clothes."
The unit has also used loudspeakers to broadcast warnings that soldiers were entering homes.
"It worked. They didn't have to knock down doors," said Willis' partner, Sgt. Antonio Carrizales, 39.
The pair, both from Chicago, have advised commanders that heavy-handed raids have generated anger, perhaps even new enemies, and left others who may have helped the coalition indifferent. U.S. officers in Tikrit have said sweeps for suspects have become more precise in recent weeks.
Psyop soldiers hope a more positive view of troops will help gain people's trust.
"That begins to undermine the foundations of resistance, because if they honestly believe the Americans are here to find weapons and to help rebuild the country it will help them assist us," Willis said.
Willis has also repeatedly asked soldiers to remove phrases like, "widowmaker" and "headhunter" painted on tank barrels, with no success. He said some Iraqis have asked him about the messages and noted that they contradict any notion that coalition troops are here to do good.
They've also explained to soldiers during interrogations of residents that when people praise Saddam, often that's just an expression of anger toward U.S. forces or nostalgia for a past when they had working electricity and jobs.
"It's not that they have this love affair with this tyrant," Willis said.
During wartime, psyop crews aimed to scare and disorient enemy fighters. In those operations, speakers mounted on helicopters broadcast sounds of gunfire, tanks, explosions and the shrieks of women, sometimes to trick the enemy into thinking an attack was being mounted in one area, while the real battle was elsewhere.
Surrender appeals were sounded from loudspeakers.
There was also a flyer warning insurgents they could not hide from American-led forces outfitted with nightvision cameras -- a message that gave rise to a local Iraqi urban legend that U.S. troops could see through women's clothing.
Now psyop units are engaged in more of a sales job, Willis said. He confronts Iraqis face to face trying to persuade them that officials from Saddam's Baath party that once ruled this place are powerless. If they're so powerful, Willis asks them, why can't they fix your problems? Why are they hiding?
On Sunday, Willis, and two soldiers along for security, headed into Tikrit's crowded outdoor market with a stack of posters showing a saluting Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri in military uniform and offering a $10 million reward for information that might lead to the capture of the former deputy chairman of Iraq's ruling Revolutionary Command Council. Al-Douri is No. 6 on the coalition's list of 55 most wanted former regime leaders and the most wanted Iraqi now that Saddam has been arrested.
Children grabbed for the flyers. Few adults took it. A woman tossed it. Some men backed into shops to avoid being handed one.
©2004 Associated Press