Fear or friendly faces? Sol­diers never know what to ex­pect in Iraq

The Washington Times Weekly - - Front Page - By Sharon Behn

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].”

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