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Thursday, April 29, 2004 04:35 pm

Welcome home, 233rd

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A member of the 233rd frisks a civilian last year for a curfew violation
PHOTO BY RICH MILLER

The soldiers of Springfield's 233rd Military Police Company of the Illinois National Guard are finally home after a year in Iraq.

I was embedded briefly with the 233rd while in Iraq last year. The embed was one of my most positive experiences in that screwed-up nation.

I also spent a lot of time in Fallujah, which was patrolled by American infantrymen. The infantry is trained to fight wars, not police the peace. They do a great job of killing the enemy and destroying whatever gets in their way -- but their commanders barely changed tactics after the initial invasion.

I wrote a story for Illinois Times back then, comparing how the infantry commanders handled Fallujah and how the 233rd MPs dealt with their assignment in Baghdad ["Wrong moves, right moves," Sept. 18, 2003]. The infantry had just accidentally killed 10 Fallujah policemen and shot up a nearby hospital in the process. It was a time of high tension, to say the least.

Since Fallujah exploded into a full-blown conflict a few weeks ago, I've wondered whether things would have been any different if the 233rd's police-oriented tactics had been used during the last year instead of the infantry's war practices.

It's not that simple, however. Fallujah, which backed Saddam Hussein to the hilt, was occupied without a single major battle. The unscathed Saddam loyalists have probably been planning their revenge ever since, and the bloody revolt might have taken place no matter what.

Anyway, as a tribute to the 233rd's homecoming, I thought I'd revisit part of the story I wrote last fall about the brave men and women of our state who served us so well over there:

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- A midnight ride, along with the 233rd Military Police Company through some of the meanest streets of Baghdad, highlighted the dramatic tactical differences between trained military police and infantry patrols. The 233rd seems to be functioning quite well despite the dangerous assignment.

"The infantry would have lit him up," said a member of the 233rd during the patrol. The MP was referring to a night not long ago when an Iraqi teenager aimed a red laser pointer at his face.

"I found him in three seconds," the soldier said. The teenager was immediately determined to be nonhostile, so he was given a stern warning and let go.

The differences between MPs and the infantry were repeatedly evident during the all-night patrol. The MPs, the soldiers said, are trained to clearly identify a threat before opening fire. And they are warned against firing back if it could injure any innocent bystanders. The infantry, they claimed, is just not suited to the task of policing.

Late that night, the MPs were driving up the "wrong" side of a four-lane boulevard when a dark-colored van came speeding toward them from around a curve.

The van driver, perhaps blinded by the oncoming headlights, did not stop immediately but slammed on his brakes shortly before slamming into one of the MPs' two Hummers.

The tension was high during the split second when it appeared that a head-on collision was imminent, but the MPs calmly exited their vehicles, politely ordered the man out of his van, gently frisked him, quickly searched his car, asked why he was out after the 11 p.m. curfew, and then sent him on his way with smiles on their faces.

Asked later what would have happened to the man if he had almost smashed into an infantry patrol, one of the MPs said the Iraqi probably would have been killed.

Unlike the infantry in Fallujah, the 233rd has developed a strong, even warm, relationship with the local Iraqi police. The MPs have provided constant training, oversight, and advice, helped them protect their station against terrorist attacks, and helped them set up an internal-affairs division.

And the 233rd has done all this despite the constant assault on morale by the Department of Defense. These are part-time soldiers, remember, and they were supposed to be home by now. But their return date has been pushed back time and again. Just weeks after being finally being given a Dec. 7 pullout date, for example, the MPs were informed that they would most likely be in Iraq until next April.

Even though they patrol a high-crime neighborhood populated with illegal arms merchants and known Saddam Hussein sympathizers, the all-night patrol encountered no significant problems on the night I was with them.

If you're seeking good news in Iraq, the 233rd looks to be it. The bad news is, there aren't a lot more soldiers like them over here.

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