Soldiers in the US Army's 4th Brigade, 1st Infantry Division raised their hands in salute as the body of a fallen comrade was whisked into the moonless Baghdad night aboard a Black Hawk helicopter.
The soldier was one of three killed Tuesday in a pair of roadside-bomb attacks – just four days after their battalion set out to establish a combat outpost in the city's Al Amel neighborhood.
The troops are among those that began arriving a month ago in a push to pacify Iraq's restive capital. And for those who saluted the departing helicopter, the deaths sharply underscored the perils of stepped-up patrols in urban areas. That approach is a U-turn from the previous plan that had American soldiers living in fortified bases and going out on occasional patrols.
But the neighborhood outposts are at the heart of the new US and Iraqi plan to stem the sectarian violence that has engulfed Baghdad and to slowly convince residents that Iraqi forces, especially the national police, are there to serve them and not to facilitate the activities of militias and extremist groups.
US troops face multiple challenges. They must protect themselves from car bombs, snipers, and increasingly sophisticated and lethal roadside bombs. They will have to act as policemen and moderators in a complex local struggle that few of them fathom as they lead efforts to revitalize entire sections of the city.
And they have to work side-by-side with Iraqi forces who, despite some signs of progress, still have a long way to go in demonstrating loyalty, discipline, and, most important, a willingness to lead the fight.
Shortly before midnight Friday, soldiers from the 4th Brigade's 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment's Alpha Company began moving out. Dozens of tractors, tanks, flat-bed trucks transported 10-ft.-high concrete blocks and reams of barbed wire through deserted streets toward Amel and nearby Jihad.
Both areas are located on the capital's west side, just south of the airport road, which has seen numerous fatal shootings and roadside bombs.
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