- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

HUSAYBAH, Iraq — The 101st Airborne is on the prowl and taking fire — from children with cap pistols celebrating the Eid al-Fitr festival marking the end of Ramadan.

“Get on the phone with the mayor, and tell these kids to stop shooting their toy guns or they’ll end up dead,” ordered Lt. Col. Joe Buche, commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 187th Regiment from Fort Campbell, Ky.

Col. Buche was leading his forces this week on a raid set up on short notice after he received intelligence indicating that senior insurgent leaders were preparing to meet at an abandoned hotel on the edge of town.

A massive manhunt is under way on the Iraqi-Syrian border as U.S. forces seek to root out foreign fighters and insurgents.

On the walls of Husaybah, a city of 120,000, insurgents have painted “Slow Dayth to the Americans.”

After insurgents assassinated Husaybah’s police chief in October, most Iraqi officers have refused to show up to work out of fear of being seen in league with U.S. forces.

Hot on the insurgents’ trail, the colonel and his security detail stopped to watch a butcher slaughter a black sheep as his forces quickly deployed in a cordon around the suspect hotel.

As the butcher skinned the sheep, he growled that his holiday season was being ruined by the heavy U.S. military activity in his hometown.

A block ahead, gunfire crackled and terrified mothers watched from windows as Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles turned their turrets into action.

But by the time the battalion’s Apache company blasted open a hotel door, a dozen men in holiday black gowns and suits had fled out the back. Forces found only the owner standing terrified beside a bubbling kettle of tea.

Most of the raids begin with a far lighter hand, as witnessed in a four-day visit with U.S. forces.

Col. Buche’s forces, combing Husaybah, are handing out $20 to every household that has no more than the allowed one machine gun for “self-defense.”

By Sunday, his forces will have handed out nearly $70,000 alone in Husaybah, the nexus of Iraq’s “Wild West” and the district seat of the Al Khaim border region.

The forces here from the 101st Airborne Division are some of the best and most professional infantrymen in the U.S. military.

They have rounded up nearly 200 suspects, about a dozen foreign fighters, hundreds of weapons, one cow and one sheep.

When Col. Buche and his forces entered a home in another neighborhood with a few simple knocks on the door, their efforts were met with only light resistance.

Senior American commanders in Iraq have insisted that the Syrian border is a key crossing point for terrorists, including al Qaeda members, who view the U.S. presence here as a “target of opportunity.”

Leaflets dropped from the sky say that U.S. forces aim to “free your town from extremists who threaten your future,” adding, “If you interfere with the coalition’s hunt for these villains, you may be hurt or killed.”

Psychological Operations leader Sgt. Shawn McCauley, an army reservist and a full-time police officer from Hazelwood, Mo., said the fight in Iraq is now far less important than the message and the peacekeeping.

Maj. Robert Dees, whose father is a former regiment commander in the 101st who retired as a U.S. Army major general earlier this year, says that the strategy is straightforward.

“We would rather open doors with persuasion than kick them in with our boots,” he said in Husaybah’s battle command center. The young West Point graduate insisted that, at times, other U.S. units in the region had used heavy force that alienated locals.

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