Baghdad's outposts bring new perils
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.
Alpha Company's destination was the Abu Jaafar al-Mansur sports club and judo studio in Amel. Before the US-led invasion in March 2003, it was a wedding hall and social club owned by one of Saddam Hussein's bodyguards.
A tank knocked down part of the building's walled perimeter as soldiers darted out of their Humvees and began carrying out a meticulously synchronized plan to secure it. The Iraqi caretaker, who had been expecting them but was not told of the exact time of their arrival, was roused out of bed to greet them.
The club's rooms were inspected one-by-one. The soldiers began hauling in bright yellow chainsaws, boxes of canned food, and cereal bars. Backpacks and folded cots piled up at the entrance.
At dawn Saturday, some exhausted soldiers sprawled themselves out on the floor of the weight room for a few hours of sleep. Magazine cut-outs of famous bodybuilders adorn the walls. Others began boarding up the windows of the hall, which had not seen any students for months, says caretaker Jawad Kadhem.
Amel, a mixed area, has been ripped apart by sectarian violence. In the wake of the bombing of a revered Shiite mosque in February 2006, and a retaliatory wave of Sunni mosque bombings and killings by Shiite militias, armed Sunni men in Amel began driving out Shiite families.
Then, with the launch of a security crackdown by the government of Nouri al-Maliki in the summer of 2006, Shiite militiamen, many loyal to the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, descended on Amel and began to drive out Sunni families with the tacit approval and sometimes direct help of the predominantly Shiite national police, says Kadhem.
He is a Shiite, but prides himself on getting along with everyone in Amel, where he was born and has lived all his life. He has already lost a brother and a 16-year-old nephew to the sectarian killing.
By mid-morning Saturday, cranes started placing concrete blocks in the middle of a wide street just outside the new US outpost to separate it from a row of homes. Mohammed Jasim peered out of the gate of his house. Two US soldiers waved at him. He hesitated for a moment before coming out.
"We welcome your presence. It will encourage displaced families to return. We are peace lovers," says Mr. Jasim, as his neighbor Sarhan Abbas and his three sons also emerged out of their home.
They say that they are a few of the Sunni families left on 17th Street and that they do not trust the national police, which patrols the area. They say they would not dare venture to Seven Nissan Street, Amel's market street, because it is controlled by Sadr's Mahdi Army. "Only female members of the family shop there," says Mr. Abbas.
All the alleyways leading to 17th Street, which runs parallel to Seven Nisan, were blocked with low concrete barriers a few months ago. A young man emerges from one of the alleyways to welcome the US soldiers.
"It's all the doing of the Omar Brigade. They tortured and killed people and drove them out of their homes," says Ihab al-Gharrawi, a young Shiite man, referring to a Sunni extremist group purportedly linked to Al Qaeda.
In the early afternoon, members of the Iraqi national police battalion in charge of the area, arrive at the outpost in a battered pick-up truck sprayed with green camouflage-pattern paint.
Lt. Abbas Allewi asks Alpha Company's Lt. Mike Scheer why they had come to the area and how long they intended to stay.
"We are here to help people go to work and school. Sorry, we are here to help you help people go to work and school. We will be here for a while," says Lieutenant Scheer, a native of Sacramento, Calif.
"Okay, If this is going to be a permanent position for you, then we will let you take over security here and move elsewhere," Lieutenant Allewi says.
"No we want you to stay," Scheer tells him.
US and Iraqi officials have said that what makes this latest plan different from previous failed efforts to secure Baghdad is the fact US and Iraqi forces will clean up troubled areas and establish permanent presence there.
Since the launch of the plan, Iraqi and combat outposts as well as joint security stations have been established in Baghdad's nine districts. The stations, which have representatives of the US Army and Iraqi Army and police, fulfill a more tactical and support role.
The 4th Brigade's commander, Col. Ricky Gibbs, who dropped in that day to check on his men in Amel, says that many of the combat outposts will eventually be transformed into joint stations.
Four stations and five outposts have already been set up in his brigade's area of operation, the Rashid district, which includes other major flashpoints such as Dora. Four more combat outposts will go up, he says.
Asked what enemy his men face in Amel, Colonel Gibbs says: "There are many factions. There are elements from Iran. There are elements from JAM. There is good JAM and bad JAM. There are factions that are making life for everybody."
JAM (Jaish al-Mahdi) is the acronym the US military uses for Mr. Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. Gibbs says there are passive and more hard-core members of the militia.
"That's why it's so complex. That's why living in the communities with the people, when they get to trust us, they will tell us that guy is bad," adds Gibbs, a native of Austin, Tex.
As nighttime descended, soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, decided to go out on patrol. The unit had been patrolling Amel previously without a permanent presence, and was now helping the 1-28 transition into their new digs.
The 1-18's Staff Sgt. Nicholas Morten, a native of Summersville, W.Va., says that he has been in Iraq since October but still does not fully understand the nature of the Sunni-Shiite struggle and how it's playing out in Amel.
The patrol, led by a Bradley tank, drives through Seventh Nissan Street. Not a single person is on the street but everything pointed to an area firmly in Sadr's grip. A giant illuminated billboard showing Sadr and pictures of six "martyrs" of his movement beneath stood in a traffic island.
"Long live our leader and Mujahed Sayed Moqtada," reads the graffiti on the walls.
As the patrol went down a side street, a massive explosion sent fire in the air. For a moment, there was silence in Sergeant Morten's Humvee. Then, the radio crackled: "We have hit an IED!"
The roadside bomb ripped up one of the Bradley's armor plates, but no one was injured. The soldiers decided to go back to the Amel outpost.
"You need a hug," said someone as the dazed-looking soldier, who had been sitting in the tank's turret, came down.