Relative peace in Baghdad remains fragile as troops carry out counterinsurgency plan


Click to view images from a patrol in Northeast Baghdad. Photos by Bill Murray.

BAGHDAD, IRAQ: It’s near noon on a Friday in Northeast Baghdad and the neighborhoods the U.S. military calls Muhallahs 535 and 734 are quiet. It’s the weekend, and many adults are at the local mosques for worship, leaving the streets filled with dozens of adolescent boys, yelling, kicking and raising minor havoc on bicycles, soccer balls and the unlucky stray dog.

As U.S. Army Specialist Luis Garza and 2nd Lieutenant Jonathon Logan patrol the neighborhoods, they remember these streets during a less docile time. Both men nearly died near here in the past two months, and the possibility of violence erupting in these environs remains in the front of their minds.

If this restive peace remains through the year, military and political developments that have caused attacks against Coalition troops to fall by 80 percent year-on-year will be viewed with success. If violence returns like it did in the spring, the U.S. Army’s current counter-insurgency doctrine may be headed for the trash bin.

Logan and Garza are among about 25 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, Charlie Company, on a meet-and-greet patrol in the daylight hours after a large night time search mission by Iraqi and U.S. forces disrupted life here.

The raid was part of an attempt to capture a “Special Groups” leader, possibly Iranian-trained, who is currently at the vanguard of the Shia insurgency. This time, the leader got away, and Logan talks through an Army interpreter to local residents, handing out Arabic language cards with telephone tip-lines and e-mails addresses offering money for informers who tell security forces about unlawful or dangerous activities.

The houses here in Old Hababbiyah are relatively large and well-built; middle class by Iraqi standards, but many of the residents are squatters, taking advantage of the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad neighborhoods in 2005 and 2006 to upsize, or perhaps finding a place to stay after being driven from their own homes across town. To the west, across a main road sits Iraqi’s national football stadium. The young boys wandering the streets all wear football shirts as a token of local pride.

Houston, Texas-raised Garza, the 2nd platoon’s main radio operator, has been the recipient of two attacks of EFPs, or Explosively Formed Penetrators, in this area. The first, up the street near the corner of two main thoroughfares, nicknamed Routes Gold and Buzz, on April 29 nearly severed the lower leg of his previous platoon commander, Lt. Woodard, who through the miracle of modern science kept his leg and is now in rehabilitation at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C.

“The Humvee almost tipped over, they said there was shooting but I couldn’t remember any,” said Garza, who suffered a concussion from the explosion. “I was able to get a tourniquet on it in time.”

Garza received a medal for his actions saving Woodard limb, and today he rides in 14-ton, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAPs, one of the 7,000 sent to Iraq in the past year by the U.S. Defense Department that are able to withstand much more punishment from Improvised Explosive Devices.

“I don’t ride in Humvees anymore,” Garza said.

The peak time of violence in the area this year came from March 25 until mid-May, as Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army reacted to the Iraqi National Army’s successful efforts to wrench Basrah, Iraq’s second-largest city, from the Shia nationalist party’s control.

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s government and Sadr reached a cease-fire in May. Up until then, things were extremely hot, as members of the Mahdi Army seeped out of their Sadr City stronghold to battle Iraqi and U.S. forces. Another company within the same Regiment, located several miles to the north, came under repeated mortar fire in late March, engaged the enemy and killed “at least 50” Shia insurgents in a single extended firefight, without the loss or wounding of a soldier, according to Captain Clinton Brooks, commander of the 2/30 Regiment’s Bravo Company.

The overwhelming superiority of U.S. firepower can do very little against the most lethal technology the Shia insurgence uses, the EFP, which can launch a 12-inch-wide molted copper core through the side door of the most heavily armored U.S. vehicle, including MRAPs.

“The thing came about two inches from my face,” recalled Logan of the EFP attack on May 9. “I was just turning back from talking to Garza. The Lieutenant and the radio operator are always talking. As I was turning back in my seat, it went right across my face and hit two other guys.”

The two others in the Humvee were badly injured. Williamson, the turret gunner, had his right arm shattered so badly it may never work properly again. The EFP hit the driver, Levine, across the face, a horrible injury, causing him to lose an eye and necessitating large-scale facial reconstruction surgery. Both men are in U.S. hospitals now.

“I try to forget about it sometimes,” Garza said.

During today’s trip, the dangers seem remote as the troops carry out General David Petraeus’ counter-insurgency objectives. Talk on the intercom follows the normal course among men in their 20s: the arrival of the new Guitar Hero video game in the mail; sympathy with soldiers going on a four-day leave to Baghdad’s Green Zone to see an USO event starting Ben Stiller instead of Jessica Alba; disappointment over Alba’s pregnancy; who can bench press the most in the platoon.

Garza has discovered a sense of irony during his time in Iraq, or perhaps he always had it. With the recent break-up of his marriage at the ripe old age of 22 – he may be able to make complaints against the fairer sex others can’t.

The Army is notorious for undermining family life, but in the 21st Century, soldiers are more likely to get a break-up note via e-mail or by a MySpace message with several comments, than a Dear John letter in the post. Logan, 24, a former college football quarterback, married with a family in Georgia, is less severe on the vagaries of relationships. As commander of the 2nd platoon, he has less scope to philosophize.

If troops want to ponder, they can read a single page listing Petraeus’ 10-point plan, taped to a desk back at company headquarters. Among the orders: Secure the people where they sleep. Give the people justice and honor. Be first with the truth. Make the people choose.

Let’s hope the people can choose peace.




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