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Ashland chief back from Iraq duty

Was helping organize police

As Roy Melnick tells it, last weekend's capture of Saddam Hussein could have just as easily happened six weeks ago in a Baghdad suburb.


US troops were perhaps just minutes from finding Hussein in early November, based on information developed by the Ashland police chief and his colleagues, who spent much of the fall in Iraq helping the US Department of Justice rebuild the country's police force.

Though Melnick was tapped to write a manual of policies and procedures for the reorganized Iraqi police, he quickly took on another mission: organizing an internal affairs unit to root out widespread corruption. As part of that work, Melnick helped develop a small criminal intelligence bureau.

On Nov. 8, he recalled in an interview this week, the bureau got word that Hussein was hiding at the house of a tribal leader outside of Baghdad, to catch some sleep. US troops didn't find him, but given the spider hole Hussein was found in this past weekend, Melnick wonders whether perhaps Hussein was indeed nearby that day.

"Whether he fled there or not, we don't know," Melnick said.

The incident, which Melnick couldn't talk about until Hussein was caught this past weekend, was among several high-stakes adventures Melnick had a hand in during a three-month leave of absence from Ashland. Melnick, 48, spent 74 days in Baghdad. He recalls flirting with disaster the entire time.One night, for instance, he needed gas for his vehicle but decided not to get it because he didn't want to keep other members of his convoy waiting. Heading home early the next afternoon, Oct. 12, he decided to drive to the gas pumps at Hussein's former city palace, now headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority. While he was on his way back to the hotel, a suicide bomber blew part of it up, Melnick said. Five Kurdish guards were killed along with six members of hotel security. Had he not stopped for gas, Melnick said, he probably would have arrived at the hotel at about same time as the bomber. "I call that listening to God's whispers," he said. "Something inside you tells you to go somewhere and do something, and you don't really know why, you just do it . . . I think listening to God's whispers is what kept me out of harm's way." While in Baghdad, Melnick kept in touch with family and friends by e-mail. One e-mail message, titled "Why We Are Here," included a photo of three young children in tattered clothes, playing in an alley, recalled Sean Melnick, 23, a graduate student at Northeastern University and one of the chief's five children. While US involvement in Iraq is controversial, Roy Melnick said he believes firmly in what the country is doing there. News coverage, he said, is overemphasizing the opposition of Iraqis to the Coalition Provisional Authority. "Ninety-nine point nine percent of them love the Americans," Melnick said. "And they don't want us to leave too soon."

While Melnick thinks stabilizing Iraq will take at least six months and that Americans will probably have to remain there five to 10 years, he said he's optimistic about Iraq's future.

But he doesn't hesitate to criticize the US administration there. When the coalition officials lifted the 11 p.m. curfew during Ramadan so Iraqi Muslims could travel to feasts and parties throughout the night, Melnick said, it reenergized nighttime attacks from enemy combatants.

"We were trying to respect their religion, but I think it cost American lives," he said.

Since returning to Ashland earlier this month, Melnick has gotten a warm welcome from colleagues and friends.

"He went at a time when a lot of people wouldn't be too thrilled to go there," said Ashland Selectman David Teller.

Teller noted that the war has put Ashland in an unusual situation -- the police chief has just returned from Iraq while the fire chief, William Kee, a paramedic with the Army National Guard, has left town for training and is scheduled to go there soon.

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