Mosul saw a surge in violence beginning last November.
MOSUL, Iraq (AP) -- It's just spray-painted graffiti, but the writing on the wall gets the attention of U.S. troops: "Warning to all policemen: You will be killed." Soldiers then storm into the compound, demanding the owners erase the death threat against the Americans' Iraqi allies.
"If I come back tomorrow and it's still there, I'll fix it myself and you won't like it," Capt. Blake Lackey says sternly. "I'll tear the wall down."
It's all part of a war of words in Iraq, where U.S. troops patrolling the northern city of Mosul constantly inspect handbills and graffiti on sun-scorched walls, searching for insurgent messages that they counter with their own psychological operations -- or "psy-ops."
Both sides are wielding the pen alongside the sword in hopes of winning converts among Mosul's more than 2 million, ethnically varied people -- a goal American commanders say is key in an unconventional battle where every street is a front line and public spaces double as militants' mission-planning centers.
"In an insurgency, [the fighters] rely on anonymity. They swim in the population, which only needs to be neutral," says Col. Robert B. Brown, of the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division whose troops operate in Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad.
Mosul, largely calm after the U.S.-led March 2003 invasion, saw a surge in violence beginning last November, with insurgent attacks running at about 90 per week around the Jan. 30 elections. While still violent, Mosul has calmed somewhat in recent weeks and officers say they want to maintain what they describe as momentum against insurgents.
Part of that fight is communicating with the local population, swaying them against the insurgents and persuading them to tip off U.S. and Iraqi security forces about the placement of roadside bombs and other planned attacks.
Meanwhile, militants, working mostly at night, paint threats against the nascent Iraqi forces that American commanders hope can eventually take full control of the city so they can return home.
Graffiti extols the virtues of noted militant leaders, like the Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al-Qaida's man in Iraq. "Zarqawi is the prince!" reads one.
The propaganda also is spread by word-of-mouth. Militants started rumors that candy American soldiers toss to children from their vehicles was poisoned, or that a tip-line set up by the Americans wasn't confidential and people calling it would be punished by insurgents.
Reaching the masses
In a small building on an American forward-operating base in Mosul, the Americans' offerings whir out of a copying machine. Officers insist it isn't a propaganda mill.
"It's a fine line, but propaganda is more based on untruth," says Capt. Corbin England, 34, of Puyallup, Wash., who helps coordinate the U.S. military's coercive efforts in Mosul.
"Psy-ops is a multiplier. We multiply the effectiveness of the troops on the ground, which saves lives. We're just one of the many cogs in a system that works."
England's office has stacks of cubbyholes filled with leaflets of all shapes and colors bearing various messages, all with a single goal: to bring Mosul around to the side of the Americans and the Iraqi security forces.
"In an insurgency, the key is the local population. If you win them over, the other guy loses," England says.
The Americans drop leaflets from helicopters and hand them out on the streets, encouraging Iraqis to pass the material around.
They also produce slick posters of Iraqi policemen in heroic poses in front of golden mosques -- an attempt to boost the nascent force's profile and prompt cooperation.
A booklet distributed by the Americans recounts the tale of a young boy, Ahmed Hussein, who finds a magic ring and has premonitions of an unexploded mortar round on a soccer field. He tells police of his vision before his brother Ali, about to step onto the field, can be hurt by the ordnance.
Matchbooks announce a $25 million reward for information leading to the capture of al-Zarqawi, whose face is shown on both sides of the packet.
"This malicious vermin is the obstacle that stands between the Iraqi people and security," reads a message on the matchbook.
Officers stress that psy-ops aren't to be mistaken for "deception operations," which are designed to hoodwink enemy military forces.
One of England's favorite recent examples of military deception is a story of a sole British tank firing shells into the southern city of Basra as loudspeakers blared the sounds of an attack on the city from that direction -- even as the main assault force swept in on another flank.
Sending a message
In Mosul, soldiers say the insurgent graffiti and handbills are, effectively, the militants' own force multiplier.
"It sends a message that the terrorists are harbored or supported in the area," says Lackey, 30, of Manassas, Va. He adds that he doesn't actually knock down walls, but will efface insurgent scrawlings if owners don't.
"I personally think they're responsible for their neighborhood. The outside of their wall is still their wall. You can infer that what's on the outside of the wall is what's believed inside the house."
Inside, the civilian population is often stuck. Mutsam Ubade, 35, tells Lackey he will erase the graffiti, but he worries about the response from insurgents.
"The fighters will think I'm with the coalition forces and I'll probably be killed," he states flatly. "But I have my orders, so I have to do it."
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