Fear or friendly faces? Soldiers never know what to expect in Iraq
Second of two parts
BAGHDAD — Sunlight is just beginning to filter onto the trashstrewn streets of Amariyah, a neighborhood within the Sunni district of Mansour, when the soldiers pile out of their vehicles, weapons pointed into the cool morning air.
The streets are deserted as the morning curfew is still in effect, making it easier to check buildings.
Apart from searching for weapons caches and insurgents, the soldiers are trying to send a message to the residents: They are there to secure their neighborhood.
While patrolling, and later clearing houses, the soldiers are also trying to pick up “atmospherics,” or information, and gain a better understanding of ordinary Iraqis’ concerns.
“For the most part, people want us there,” said 1st Lt. John Lowe of Bravo Company, 2nd Platoon.
The morning started at 2:30 a.m. with operations officers of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division, 32 Stryker Brigade Combat Team sitting around a plain table in one of the camp’s tents staring at a detailed aerial map of Baghdad.
They all stand as Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Barry Huggins
walks in with Command Sgt. Major Alan Bjerke, then sit down to listen to the latest intelligence reports and plans for the day.
Routes are checked, weather checked, maps are checked, and the day’s mission is made clear.
Outside, soldiers start throwing on their body armor, grab their helmets and whatever snacks they brought and climb into the back of their 19-ton, eight-wheeled armored vehicles for another 15-hour day of patrolling Baghdad.
By early morning, the team heads toward an abandoned house reportedly used by insurgents, where they meet up with their Iraqi army counterparts. The troops find a propane gas tank bomb and propaganda leaflets strewn inside the filthy house, piled high with dirty clothes and old photographs.
The Iraqi soldiers proudly pull everything onto the street, not understanding the U.S. request that they leave the scene untouched until it can be photographed — evidence that will be needed if anyone is detained in connection with the bomb. A “different fight”
Once the house is cleared and secured, the two forces start asking the neighbors who used the house and where they have gone. Many are unwilling to say anything. But one man welcomes the soldiers into his home, waits until the Iraqi army has left, then opens up to the U.S. soldiers.
“Everybody is scared of the Iraq army,” says the man, watching the U.S. soldiers as his wife brings in small glasses of sweet tea. “When you leave, they will come here and ask us what did we tell the American forces.”
Back outside, the Stryker patrol team clears the streets and waits on a rooftop for the explosives experts to detonate the propane bomb. Suddenly, the quiet is broken by the sound of gunfire. The soldiers scan the horizon, seeing nothing. Across the street, an Iraqi man sits un- flinching on a yellow-patterned sofaswing, holding his child.
The patrol goes back to work, stopping again just briefly at the sound of a loud bang to watch the smoke rising into the air from a distant car bomb. It’s 9:30 a.m.
For 24-year-old Spc. Carl Moore of Bravo Company, 2nd Platoon, this Baghdad is utterly changed from the city he encountered on his first deployment.
“It’s a completely different fight,” he said. “The threats are from so many directions, and intimidation [of the people] is a big thing, it’s huge.”
The fight, he said, is “all an intelligence battle now. It’s frustrating more than anything.”
The first attempt to detonate the bomb has failed, and the patrol moves on to clear some abandoned buildings near the main street. The soldiers pile into a dusty three-story apartment complex, kick down the door to a first-floor apartment, smash the glass out of the balcony windows facing the street and position themselves.
Then comes the call. Explosives experts are about to try again to detonate the propane tank bomb. Everyone gets behind a wall and waits. “Fire in the hole” crackles over the radio, followed by a terrifically large explosion.
The soldiers file out of the building one by one to the waiting Strykers, hugging the outside walls. Suddenly there is a high-pitched whine and a pop: Sniper fire, right above their heads. Some duck back into the building, while others try to figure out the direction of the fire. The sniper is never located. Iraqis unready
A couple of hours later, the Americans meet up with their Iraqi counterparts, who are checking on weapons in a shack manned by Iraqi private security guards. The idea is to touch base and compare notes.
These sessions are more or less useful depending on the mission and the leadership of the Iraqi army unit.
The Americans have very specific ways of clearing neighborhoods, for example, working in a systematic street-by-street and block-by-block manner, with small teams of soldiers assigned to particular sections. The Iraqi methods are more freeform, the U.S. soldiers say.
Speaking privately, most soldiers say that despite improving in the past couple of years, the Iraqi army — and to a greater degree the Iraqi police — are not ready to take full control of Baghdad.
Western private security companies, whose members constantly travel the city streets, complain that safety has deteriorated as U.S. forces have given the Iraqis more responsibility. The main route from the airport to the Green Zone — cleaned up in the past year and a half — is once again full of bombs and attackers.
“Now the checkpoints are Iraqi checkpoints” and not so carefully monitored, shrugged one security company gunman, asking that neither his nor his company’s name be used.
The Americans are making an effort to let the Iraqis lead the missions, or at least make them feel as if they are in control.
On a late evening patrol on the wealthier outskirts of Sadr City, a U.S. team leader walked together with his Iraqi counterpart, making sure his interpreter told every head of household that the U.S. forces were there to back up the Iraqis, not the other way around.
But in a quick aside, in case there was any confusion, he reminded the interpreter that the U.S. was still in control — they just wanted the people to feel the Iraqis were in the lead. Confidence in Iraqi forces varies. “The units you can trust are the ones you can let go into a house, and they don’t steal anything,” said one U.S. officer, who asked that his name not be used. Varied missions
Patrols vary greatly depending on the neighborhood and the nature of the day’s mission. Some days, the Stryker teams will clear house after house, checking for weapons and insurgents.
Other days, they will raid certain houses where they have information that chemicals, weapons, terrorists or kidnap victims have been seen. Sometimes they just want to make their presence felt, or gather information for the next raid.
Part of the objective is to get families to fill out census forms, to get a clearer picture of who is where, and how many displaced families are inside the sprawling city.
“We’re getting a lot of ‘He left here four months ago,’ ” in the period just before the surge started, said the officer. “We don’t know where they went.”
The welcome the soldiers get varies from street to street, even from hour to hour. Sometimes the troops are asked inside houses, offered tea or sodas, and sometimes freshly bought flat diamond-shaped bread called samood.
“People are a lot less reticent to talk to us,” said Capt. Sebastian Andres, executive officer of Bravo Company of the 2-3/3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team charged with coordinating with 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division troops who control western Baghdad.
“We’ve seen a small increase of individuals willing to talk to us on what they perceive as terrorists. That has led to a couple of people being captured or put into Camp Cropper,” he said, referring to a detention center located on one of the U.S. bases. “The tips we’ve been getting seem better.”
In one instance, during a severalhour-long patrol in a largely Shi’ite community, U.S. soldiers were called back to a house down a side alley to speak to a man who said he had been beaten by members of the Mahdi Army militia. Deep purple bruises covered his legs, and he said they had tortured him with electricity on his feet.
After a lot of reassurance, the man gave the soldiers the location of a Mahdi militia member, although it was clear he was terrified.
In other houses, soldiers are politely invited in, but the residents make their feelings clear.
“We are not scared. Saddam taught us to be strong because he was strong, and we love him,” said Suhat, a 47-year-old woman caring for her mother and other family members.
“We were too much sad when he died,” she said. “Mr. Bush did not ask us if we loved him or not — he only listens to the ruling council and the Badr and Mahdi.” The numbers game
The Badr Brigade is the armed wing of the powerful Shi’ite political party known as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and Mahdi is militant Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al Sadr’s street militia.
Many Sunnis feel the Americans have sided with the Shi’ites against them. There is still plenty of graffiti on the walls praising Saddam as the “leader of the resistance” fighting the U.S. forces.
After hours jumping in and out of their vehicles to clear streets and buildings with pounds of gear on their backs, the long day that began for the Strykers at 2:30 a.m. begins winding down when they meet at 2:40 p.m. with the Iraqi commander for the Mansour area to discuss the events of the day and plan for the next.
Once again, all the faces turn to the black-and-white map of Baghdad on the wall, which matches smaller plastic-covered maps held by the officers as they sit on old sofas drinking Pepsis. Their mission over, they shake hands with the Iraqi commander and head for camp, ending the day at about 5 p.m.
The constant patrols and raids are turning up plenty of weapons caches and the number of detentions is up — figures which are touted every day with a flurry of press releases. But the daily tally of violence, mass-casualty car bombings, gunfire attacks and dead bodies on the streets is still very high.
“The leaders and the soldiers are doing a good job, and we are helping make the Iraqi Security Forces a better, more proficient force,” says an officer who asks that his name not be used.
But he adds, “it seems to be that we are becoming obsessed with the number count. Like everything we have found. [. . . ] It’s political.
“It seems to be the same as Vietnam. There we had body counts, here we have detainees and caches. It’s a quantitative game. This will never win [the war].”