- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2003

TIKRIT, Iraq Troops manning vehicle checkpoints on the edges of cities and towns across Iraq are on the front lines of Operation Iraqi Freedom now that the war essentially has ended.
Saddam Hussein's conventional army has been demolished, giving U.S. troops the sometimes dangerous task of searching through suspicious vehicles on Iraqi highways.
"The biggest fear amongst us is probably suicide bombers," said Army Lt. Michael J. Isbell, who since the weekend has commanded troops at a checkpoint on the northern edge of Tikrit, the Saddam Hussein's hometown.
"We've tried to prevent against it," said Lt. Isbell, explaining that vehicles are tracked by machine guns and motioned by troops to drive slowly for about 200 yards before reaching the checkpoint.
"But it's one of those ways they can sneak in and hit you," Lt. Isbell said. "By the time you know it, it's too late."
The majority of vehicles pulling up to the Tikrit checkpoint on Highway 1, as well as other checkpoints across Iraq, have been passing through without incident.
But contraband is confiscated daily and there is an air of uneasiness that grips those responsible for manning the checkpoints.
U.S. Marines shot and killed several women and children in a bus when it didn't slow down at a checkpoint in southern Iraq early this month. Days before the incident, the checkpoint had been attacked by a suicide bomber.
There hasn't been such misfortune in Tikrit. Units of Saddam's Special Republican Guard were stationed here before the war, but military officials said they are not checking cars for former guard members. Rather, soldiers are checking vehicles simply for small weapons.
"We're looking for AK-47 [assault rifles]," said Lt. Isbell, of the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division. "Our task is to prevent hostile forces from reinforcing this military area."
Soldiers also are looking for drivers or passengers who have tattoos on their arms, particularly the tattoo of a bird that could signify that someone may be a member of Fedayeen, Saddam's elite unit of guerrilla fighters.
On Sunday, five Iraqi men in a white Nissan pickup truck were detained briefly when a small bundle of blasting caps used for C-4 explosives and a package of AK-47 bullets were discovered in the truck.
On Monday, four Iraqi men were detained after a soldier noticed a suspicious-looking briefcase in the back seat of their red sedan. Several dozen rounds of AK-47, pistol and shotgun ammunition were emptied from the briefcase.
Soldiers also confiscated seven fighting knives, not very sharp, from the men. Perhaps ironically, they were found inside a U.S. Army-issue meal crate in the back of the car. No gun was found. After the four were held by soldiers at gunpoint on the roadside for about 25 minutes, they were released.
The Tikrit checkpoint is manned not only by troops with M-16s but also covered by a sniper in a foxhole near the road and a tank that towers over approaching vehicles, not to mention its cannon.
Despite the tank's daunting presence, soldiers say that more often than not Iraqis are relaxed and friendly when asked to step out of their vehicle and open the trunk.
"Some of them give us dirty looks, but most of them say they love us and wave and honk, or occasionally they'll give us a pack of cigarettes or some tomatoes or a head of lettuce," Lt. Isbell said.
On man passing through the checkpoint recently said he could bring the soldiers food and soda pop if they wished. The soldiers took the man up on the offer and when he returned about an hour later, they bought from him a case of Pepsi and four roasted chickens wrapped in pita bread and stuffed with rice.
"The chicken is delicious actually," said one soldier.
Hamid Abdul, an Iraqi man who passed through the checkpoint recently, told a few reporters gathered nearby that the Iraqi people were not upset to see Saddam Hussein removed from power.
Mr. Abdul, 43, said he was from north of Tikrit. He sat between two other Iraqi men in the back seat of the car. Speaking through the open window, he said, "We want to see freedom for our children and brothers."
Another driver questioned by the reporters as he passed the checkpoint simply said "Saddam" as he slid a single finger across his neck to mimic the act of slitting one's throat.
Soldiers manning the checkpoint know that Iraqis, even those driving through Saddam's hometown, are unlikely to show any signs of support for their former dictator when they've got a tank barrel pointed at them.
Staff Sgt. Trent Merritt said he cannot stress enough to his soldiers the importance of not becoming complacent and too trustful of Iraqis passing through the checkpoint.
"Even though we're in their country," he said, "we still need to bear down and just stay tough and focused. We lose that, and that's when we get complacent and anything can sneak up and bite us in the butt."

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