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AP IMPACT: Handshakes or hand grenades

BUHRIZ, Iraq — In a muddy, half-collapsed police station northeast of Baghdad, in the heart of insurgent territory, 30 American and 60 Iraqi troopers hunker down amid constant mortar fire and study how to undermine an enemy who is literally next door.
    Such ramshackle compounds are likely signs of the future in Iraq.
    Militants, once dismissed as ‘‘dead-enders’’ on their ‘‘last legs,’’ continue to confound American tacticians, and U.S. war planners are shifting strategy.
    Instead of storming an area to drive away militants and then withdrawing to the relative safety of big bases, select forces are being stationed among the insurgents themselves in the heart of communities around Iraq, where soldiers are warned to be ‘‘ready each day to be greeted with a handshake or a hand grenade.’’
    The idea is to fight the ‘‘three-block war’’ — in the words of the Pentagon’s first new counterinsurgency manual in 20 years, a 242-page document written in part by the new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.
    The hope is that increased contact with ordinary Iraqis will pay off with goodwill and sharper tips on militant activity and let Iraqi soldiers learn how to rule the streets on their own. But there are obvious risks.
    On Monday, a suicide bomber and gunmen laid siege to a similar post north of Baghdad, killing two U.S. soldiers and wounding 17.
    ‘‘Our battle space is villages and towns, and you have to engage the people as much as you engage the enemy,’’ said Col. David W. Sutherland, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 3rd Brigade and the top U.S. officer in this province.
    On a recent patrol, American soldiers shadowed Iraqis going house-to-house handing out school supplies. Suddenly, all were forced to dive into a dusty roadside crevice when Buhriz reverberated with gunfire — first from what was believed to be a rooftop sniper, then from the deafening pop of a 25 mm machine gun mounted on a Bradley fighting vehicle. Shell casings whizzed across an intersection, and the Americans quickly evacuated.
    ‘‘Buhriz embodies the new counterinsurgency plan, which tells us: ‘Clear, hold, build,’’’ said Sutherland, 45, from Toledo, Ohio. But he notes it often is just a matter of keeping a foothold.
    When soldiers first arrived in Buhriz, about 35 miles north of Baghdad, they found fliers taped to lampposts with an ominous warning to residents: ‘‘If American forces come, go into your houses or we’ll kill you, too.’’
    Still, the unit launched a daring raid to reclaim the Buhriz police station, which had been abandoned by Iraqi forces and overtaken by insurgents months earlier. The operation required help from Apache choppers and more than 13,000 rounds of ammunition, and left a two-story section of the station flattened.
    Hauling in food, cots, surveillance equipment and ammunition, soldiers set about making this crumbling cement structure their home. Crates of Gatorade and Pepsi are stacked in sooty corners. A medic plays solitaire on a laptop.
    An adjacent barracks was refurbished, and, weeks later, skittish Iraqi soldiers were persuaded to move in.
    The Buhriz police station is one of several joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol bases in the suburbs of Baqouba, a mostly Sunni town that extremists claim as the capital of an Islamic state. Fierce fighting rages as U.S. troops engage insurgents believed to be streaming out of Baghdad during a security crackdown.
    Capt. Peter Chapman, from Stone Mountain, Ga., is a 30-year-old company commander with the Army’s 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. He was one of hundreds of military officers who attended a five-day seminar on the new counterinsurgency manual last October.
    ‘‘It gives us more purpose and helps us understand how smaller things lead to bigger things,’’ he said. ‘‘Like how it’s better to talk to people than shoot at them, and how it’s better to have the Iraqi army up front working with us.
    ‘‘But sometimes we find ourselves talking less and less and shooting more.’’
    Recently, soldiers hauled huge bags of brightly colored sneakers and stuffed animals to pass out to children as they cleared houses along narrow passageways.
    But nearly every house was mysteriously empty. A space heater still glowed red in one living room, suggesting its inhabitants had left moments earlier.
    In another house, medical supplies — saline bottles, IV bags, syringes — were scattered about. U.S. soldiers believed it was a makeshift aid station for insurgents.
    That day, the bags of toys came home with the soldiers.
    Chapman’s battalion commander, Lt. Col. Morris Goins, 41, of Southern Pines, N.C., expects it will be awhile before locals accept their new neighbors.
    ‘‘Killing someone is simple. It’s easy. But getting people to come to the table — building a country — that takes time,’’ said Goins, on his third tour in Iraq.
    Life is much easier on a large American military base nearby, but Goins said about half his 1,000 soldiers are off-base at any given time, embedded in Iraqi villages at posts like this one — an arrangement he concedes is ‘‘not at all conventional.’’
    ‘‘I’m working with the provincial council, I’m meetings with sheiks, I’m trying to train the Iraqi police and Iraqi army, and, oh, yeah, I also have to engage in a firefight once in a while,’’ he said with a smile. ‘‘It’s difficult, but it’s our best shot right now.’’

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