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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Soldiers Wrap Iraqi Villages in Razor Wire

ABU HISHMA, Iraq -- As the guerrilla war against Iraqi insurgents intensifies, U.S. soldiers have begun wrapping entire villages in barbed wire.

In selective cases, the soldiers are demolishing buildings thought to be used by Iraqi attackers. They have begun imprisoning the relatives of suspected guerrillas in hopes of pressuring the insurgents to turn themselves in.

U.S. forces embarked on their get-tough strategy in early November, which proved to be the deadliest month yet for them in Iraq, with 81 soldiers killed by hostile fire. The response they chose is beginning to echo the Israeli counterinsurgency campaign in the occupied territories.

So far, the new approach appears to be succeeding in diminishing the threat to U.S. soldiers. But it appears to be coming at the cost of alienating many of the people the United States is trying to win over. Abu Hishma is quiet now, but it is angry, too.

Here, in a village encased in a razor-wire fence after repeated attacks on U.S. troops, Iraqi civilians line up to go in and out, filing through a U.S.-guarded checkpoint, each carrying an identification card printed in English only.

"If you have one of these cards, you can come and go," coaxed Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Sassaman, the battalion commander whose men oversee the village, about 80 kilometers north of Baghdad. "If you don't have one of these cards, you can't."

The Iraqis nodded and edged their cars through the line. Over to one side, an Iraqi man named Tariq muttered in anger. "I see no difference between us and the Palestinians," he said. "We didn't expect anything like this after Saddam fell."

The practice of destroying buildings where Iraqi insurgents are suspected of planning or mounting attacks has been used for decades by Israeli soldiers in Gaza and the West Bank. The Israeli army has also imprisoned the relatives of suspected terrorists in the hopes of pressuring the suspects to surrender, and has cordoned off villages and towns thought to be hotbeds of guerrilla activity in an effort to control the flow of people moving in and out.

U.S. officials say they are not purposefully mimicking Israeli tactics, but they acknowledge that they have studied closely the Israeli experience in urban fighting. Ahead of the war, Israeli defense experts briefed U.S. commanders on their experience in guerrilla and urban warfare. The U.S. forces say there are no Israeli military advisers helping them in Iraq.

Writing in the July issue of Army magazine, a U.S. general said U.S. officers had recently traveled to Israel to hear about lessons learned from recent fighting there.

"Experience continues to teach us many lessons, and we continue to evaluate and address those lessons, embedding and incorporating them appropriately into our concepts, doctrine and training," Brigadier General Michael Vane wrote. "For example, we recently traveled to Israel to glean lessons learned from their counterterrorist operations in urban areas." Vane is the deputy chief of staff for doctrine concepts and strategy at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.

U.S. officers here say their new hard-nosed approach reflects a more realistic appreciation of the military and political realities faced by U.S. soldiers in the Sunni triangle, the area north and west of Baghdad that is generating the most violence against coalition forces.

Underlying the new strategy is the conviction that only a tougher approach will quell the insurgency and that the new strategy must punish not just the guerrillas but also make clear to ordinary Iraqis the cost of not cooperating.

"You have to understand the Arab mind," said Captain Todd Brown, a company commander with the 4th Infantry Division, as he stood outside the gates of Abu Hishma. "The only thing they understand is force -- force, pride and saving face."

Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the top military commander in Iraq, announced the get-tough strategy in early November. After the announcement, some U.S. officers warned that the scenes that would follow would not be pretty.

Speaking in Baghdad on Saturday, Sanchez said attacks on allied forces or gunfights with adversaries across Iraq had dropped to under 20 a day now from 40 a day two weeks ago.

The problems in Abu Hishma, a town of 7,000, began in October, when the U.S. military across the Sunni triangle decided to ease off on their military operations to coincide with the onset of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

In Abu Hishma, as in other towns, the backing off by the coalition forces was not reciprocated by the insurgents. U.S. troops regularly came under mortar fire, often traced to the surrounding orchards.

Meanwhile, the number of bombs planted on nearby roads area rose sharply. Army convoys regularly took fire from a house a few kilometers from the village.

The last straw for U.S. troops came on Nov. 17, when a group of guerrillas fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the front of a Bradley armored personnel carrier. The grenade, with an armored-piercing tip, punched through the Bradley's shell and killed Staff Sergeant Dale Panchot, one of its crewmen.

The grenade went straight into the sergeant's chest. With the Bradley still smoldering, the soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry, part of the 4th Infantry Division, surrounded Abu Hishma and searched for the guerrillas. Soldiers began encasing the town in razor wire.

The next day, a U.S. jet dropped a bomb on the house that had been used to attack them. The U.S. forces arrested 10 sheiks, the mayor, the police chief and most of the city council.

"We really hammered the place," Major Darron Wright said.

Two and a half weeks later, the town of Abu Hishma is enclosed in a barbed-wire fence that stretches for eight kilometers. Men ages 18 to 65 have been ordered to get identification cards. There is only one way into the town and one way out.