Perils that confront US troops as they surge into Baghdad

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Two shots ring out, seconds apart. It is an unusual sound for Baghdad, where gunfire usually comes in long bursts.

A block away, two US soldiers go down. Specialist Anthony Taylor, according to the medic who goes to his assistance, is saved by the quick work of fellow soldiers who apply a chest seal to allow him to keep breathing. His friends see him giving the thumbs-up as he is taken to a helicopter for evacuation. The other, Sergeant Robert Thrasher, dies almost instantly.

Delta company of 2nd battalion, 12th cavalry of the 1st US Cavalry Division has spent four months in the west Baghdad neighbourhood of Ghazaliya – a blighted suburb that may be the single worst zone in Baghdad – and has eight months to go. Its troops have been hit by dozens of booby traps and more small arms fire than they can remember. Normally, the gunfire is so badly aimed that they barely pay attention. This time, both shots strike just above the armour plate that protects the chest. The gunman is either skilled or lucky.

As the “surge” of an additional 21,500 US troops pours into the country on the orders of President George W. Bush, the Americans will push further into neighbourhoods such as Ghazaliya, staying longer. They may discover that their presence pushes the guerrillas out to other areas, allowing the Iraqi government to restore some municipal services. However, some in Delta company say they find it hard to see the point of conducting such operations in the middle of a civil war. What they see as their ultimate objective – establishing a functioning democracy – seems impossibly distant.

Ghazaliya contains operatives of at least three insurgent networks – al-Qaeda, the Omar Brigades and the 1920 Revolution brigades. A number of large villas bespeak the neighbourhood’s origins as a home for many of the elite in the Saddam Hussein era. But the neighbourhood, now almost entirely Sunni, has fallen on hard times.

Sunni expelled by the Mahdi army from Shia areas often huddle together in one room of the sprawling homes, amid bags of rice and the smell of propane from their lamps. An X painted on the wall marks, say interpreters accompanying the patrol, houses where Shia families were given 48 hours to leave or be killed.

Some houses are abandoned, while in others only women and children remain, the fighting-aged males having fled abroad, to Syria or beyond. Rubbish is heaped in the streets – the US soldiers say its collection is discouraged by al-Qaeda, whose forces find the piles good places to hide booby traps.

Virtually all the residents of this zone say the same thing to the soldiers who enter their homes and, after doing a quick search, ask for their occupants’ help routing out insurgents so the area can once again become prosperous and secure. Things are fine already, the
Iraqis answer: everything is very calm. Some thank the US troops for protecting them from Shia militia raids;
others complain of the risk of kidnapping when they go to work. During another patrol, however, one family does admit that armed men wearing masks come into their house to shoot at the Americans.

Still, the general lack of information being volunteered is an improvement from when the unit first arrived: people approached on the street by a US patrol would simply turn and run. “There are some citizens that I believe are sick and tired of [the violence],” says Sergeant First Class Thomas Revette, senior non-commissioned officer for Delta’s 3rd platoon. “If they feel secure enough that no one is watching, they give us the information . . . But for the most part they don’t even want to be seen talking to us, because they’ll be targeted.”

Just 1km north, according to US officers, the atmosphere is different. The soldiers say they receive useful tips from the populace and assistance from local leaders. Reconstruction projects are in progress and, in at least one incident, some of the more mainstream insurgents have turned their guns on al-Qaeda.

The difference is that the north is on the front line between the two warring Muslim sects and the US troops are an asset in the Sunni fight for survival. South Ghazaliya is one of the last Sunni redoubts in Baghdad, a transit route into Baghdad from their western Iraqi insurgent strongholds such as Abu Ghraib or Ramadi. The guerrillas apparently want to preserve this area as their own.

A nearby vacant lot on the edge of the city partly explains the insurgents’ hold on South Ghazaliya. Nicknamed the “G-spot” by Delta company, it is used as an execution ground. The Americans say they have found 75 bodies there, including those of teenage boys and a 15-year-old girl. Two days before the ambush, they discovered what appeared to be an Iraqi soldier in camouflage pants, his legs bound in tape and his severed head propped on his back. The Americans suspect that many of the victims are brought in from elsewhere to be killed there, so as to send southern Ghazaliya a message.

The patrol does not end with Thrasher’s death. Word comes over the military radio net that another booby trap has been discovered on an overpass. One of Delta’s platoons is expected to provide cover to the demolition teams who will destroy it with a bomb-disposal robot. Blowing up the device is an agonisingly slow business – radios malfunction, a Bradley armoured fighting vehicle blocks the signal from the engineers to the robot.

Probably the least of their problems is the patter of gunfire that the Americans receive from across an open field, which a pair of Apache helicopters circling overhead answer with their chain guns. At last the robot places the demolition charge and a plume of black smoke shoots into the sky, accompanied seconds later by a boom: the booby trap is neutralised.

But the patrol is still not over – another roadside bomb has been discovered and Delta’s 3rd platoon is again expected to stand guard for the engineers. Lieutenant Matthew Holtzendorff, the platoon commander, points out that, thanks to the need to pull out vehicles to evacuate Thrasher and Taylor, his men are “stacked like cordwood” in their armoured vehicles alongside the casualties’ armour and personal effects.

“I got 18 guys packed into two Bradleys, you got guys in there covered in blood,” Lt Holtzendorff shouts when he finally gets an opening on the crowded radio net to an operator who has clearly misunderstood what is going on. The unit returns to base.

That night, the platoon is debriefed on the fatality. “There was nothing that could have prevented it,” says Sgt Revette. “It could have been a lucky shot, could have been a fluke . . . Most of you know by now my philosophy. God has a plan and, if it’s your time, it’s your time.”

“America has never fought a war similar to this,” he tells the Financial Times at another point. “A democracy as we know it, as westerners, I don’t think is going to work here, because of the way their society is designed . . . We can try to secure the population as best as possible, try to give them as much aid as we can, and security. But ultimately it’s going to be hard to do as long as there are still insurgents out there trying to blow up the people who are trying to fix everything.”

Lt Holtzendorff, on the other hand, thinks that America has been here before – 40 years ago, during the Vietnam conflict. This time, he says, the American troops are not demonised back home but the task of trying to reshape a society in the face of an insurgency-
cum-civil-conflict is equally daunting.

If the goal were to end violence, “the easiest way would be to give Ghazaliya to the Shia”, he says. “They wouldn’t kill everyone right way – they’d give them a warning to evacuate, 48 hours, then come in . . . The downside of doing it the easy way is that it goes against everything we stand for. We always believe in the underdog, we always believe in helping the helpless: for that reason it makes sense to stay here
and help.”

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