Beneath the hard October sun recalcitrant Baghdad throws up a fistful of dust, so fine the soldiers call it moon dust. It hovers, despite the breeze, mixing with diesel fumes, wreathing this sprawling, dyspeptic city. Gleaming through the bright smog is a giant blimp, used by 1st Cav 1-9 to gather intelligence. It's tethered to 1-9's base, swinging gently, high above the city.
I often imagined the view from up there, especially on one afternoon in mid October when I found myself running across Tala'a Square with 3rd Platoon just after a young soldier had been killed by a sniper. We'd look as urgent as ants, rushing to repair a tunnel. Just another day in Baghdad's Haifa Street neighborhood.
This was the last tragic patrol that I accompanied in Baghdad. I'd spent three weeks with two battalions of the 1st Cav's 3rd Brigade, which has patrolled Baghdad since April. Although they're past their halfway mark, most soldiers I spoke to expected to have their tours extended as the security situation in Baghdad heats up before the elections.
Not every neighborhood in 3rd Brigade's area of operations is so grim. The brigade has spent some $300 million on projects throughout their area, upgrading sewer systems, electrical grids, schools, trash collection and roads, and working very closely with the ubiquitous neighborhood advisory councils, Iraq's big experiment in grass-roots democracy. The projects are often substantial and appreciated. In one neighborhood I saw many of the residents standing around a backhoe that was excavating a trench for the new sewer main. Around us were lakes of wastewater, and they were obviously happy and excited for the new system.
These projects are the crucial part of the army's strategy to turn the tide on the insurgents. But the fighting interrupts this work, turning some neighborhoods into cauldrons of discontent, where the lack of progress on the infrastructure only serves to confirm peoples' mistrust of the Americans.
One such neighborhood is Jisr Diyala, which, along with the sprawling area of south Baghdad made up of Diyala, Sindabad and Zafariniya, is where Task Force 1-161 of the Washington National Guard works, attached to 1st Cav JD, as the soldiers call it, is a mini-Sadr City, a slum of small brick houses, dusty lots, and standing sewage water.
When I arrive, Alpha Co. is planning a mission into JD. The last time they went in, they were greeted with rocket-propelled grenades.
Two 113s will carry in the dismounts, with several humvees providing extra security. Alpha Co.'s captain says about the mission: "We want to see if word is getting out about the projects, if it's helping. The definition of success is that we can move through the town without making contact; but I want conditions set so that if we do, we can fight them and kill them."
When we get there, however, at about 10:30 pm, the fetid streets are filled with curious onlookers, and no shots are fired.
A big part of the battalion's resources is devoted to public affairs, designed to counter the vast rumor mill of Baghdad's streets and mosques. The battalion tries to identify Imams who are encouraging the insurgency, and in some cases, detain them.
On the morning of October 3rd a platoon from Alpha Co. arrests Sheik Mohammed al Ghriri from the Al Alyazid mosque. He's a Sunni Imam who has ignored repeated warnings over the last year not to incite violence against U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. Recently his sermons, broadcast from the minaret, have been recorded as evidence, and 3rd Brigade decided to take action against him. A combat camera team goes along to film the arrest, in case wild rumors of abuse or theft start to circulate.
That same morning I join Capt. Hector Maldonado and Lt. Wade Aubin on a "post-raid mitigation" mission, to go out into the community of Zafariniya to talk with people and gauge reactions to the arrest. Maldonado and Aubin are in charge of civil-military operations and public affairs, respectively. As Sgt. 1st Class Paul Staneck says simply of himself and Aubin, "Our job is to sell the Iraqis on the coalition."
In the pre-mission briefing, Aubin says, "The message we're trying to get out is this: we're not impinging on anyone's right to free speech. There's a difference between talk of resistance versus encouraging violence. So we're not going against our own values. It's important to know that we didn't pick him up because he's against the U.S., but because he's inciting people to violence."
Our first stop is the Al Sadrain, a Shi'ite mosque. It's a huge, space-age building still under construction, the minaret rising directly out of the side of the main dome. Its flattened onion shape reminds me of a gigantic Ford Taurus.
We stop at the front gate, which is decorated with Muqtada posters. Soon a small delegation comes to meet us. Eventually the Imam arrives, a tall, lanky man in a brilliant white desh-daashe who looks to be no older than 30. He's obviously displeased with the Americans being here and I sense a subtle hostility in the gathering crowd.
Capt. John Shlosser, the personnel officer, is approached by a young man who asks him why Americans are killing Iraqi women and children. Schlosser replies that the army doesn't target innocent civilians. The young man tells him, "You look like a nice guy, an educated man. I wouldn't want to see you killed or wounded."
Maldonaldo tells the Imam that the army won't tolerate anyone encouraging violence. The Imam looks irritated, and notices me drawing. He immediately comes over and tries to take the drawing. "You never asked me for permission," he says angrily. I'm also annoyed. His demand that I relinquish the drawing, which is little more than a few lines, strikes me as petulant and dictatorial, so I hold onto my drawing pad. Maldonado comes over and we all talk through the translator. In the end I apologize for not asking his permission, and the Imam says, "You can keep the drawing but without my approval."
We stop at a few stores at intersections on Route Wild. When the four humvees pull up to a curb, the street is quickly filled with curious Iraqis eager to read the page the army had written up in Arabic, but the reactions seem muted, indiscernible.
At the Zafariniya Neighborhood Advisory Council meeting, Lt. Aubin carefully broaches the topic of the Sheik's arrest, only to be greeted with grinning faces around the table. The members of the NAC are happy this restive Imam is out of the picture. Two NAC members have been assassinated; the others assume that Ghriri's preaching contributed to the danger they're in.
The next day we continue the mission, this time picking up the Zafariniya police chief and some of his men to accompany us. Leaving the police station on foot, Maldonado and Aubin stop to talk with shopkeepers about the arrest, and a crowd grows around the officers, police chief and translator. The issue is clearly of interest to people. A sheik, elderly but very dignified with a long kafiya atop his head, pushes to the front of the crowd.
Afterwards a drunk approaches Maldonado. I can smell the liquor on his breath, and Maldonado tries unsuccessfully to put him off, while a small crowd of grinning teenagers looks on. Suddenly the elderly sheik springs forward and violently slaps the drunk across the face. Indignantly the man attempts to fight back, but he's quickly held by several men and handed over to the police. We get back in the humvees and continue on the mission.
Schools are starting to get out, and the streets are filled with children, many in uniforms, gleefully screaming out and making thumbs up gestures as we pass.
Over the afternoon we visit several Imams at their mosques, which are more modest than the otherworldly Al Sadrain. The Imams' reactions are similar. All express disapproval of the arrest, but some seem interested in dealing with the Americans.
One Imam talks at length about how supportive Sheik Ghriri actually was of the coalition, and how it's the Iranians who are stirring up all the trouble. He's blatantly lying, implicitly blaming the Shi'ites by invoking shadowy Iranians, but Aubin patiently hears him out.
Later, Imam Ali al Jumaili, standing in front of the most modest of all the mosques, without dome or minaret, says of Ghriri, "Perhaps we can talk with him, and get him to change his ways, if you could get him released. You know, this neighborhood, many problems. Weapons, killings. One teenager has a problem with another, he get his gun. We need help with this."
Kids are gathering around to watch me draw, and the Imam tells the translator to shoo them away. "They will tell their parents that we are talking here, and what we say."
* * *
A couple of miles to the north of the Green Zone lies FOB Headhunter, where 1st Cav's Task Force 1-9 is based. In a recent move to project a sense of Iraqi sovereignty, the army has been changing its base names. Gunslinger, Banzai and Warhorse have become Solidarity, Justice and Freedom 1. Headhunter is now Al Istiqulal, or Independence, but for the most part these new names haven't taken among the army's rank and file.
1-9's AO includes the notorious Sunni neighborhood of Karkh, where Haifa Street coils its way parallel with the Tigris. Karkh is known for its support of Saddam and its resistance to the occupation. As Capt. Chris Ford puts it, "There's areas where we know we'll get a grenade thrown at us."
1-9 also patrols the adjoining areas of Kindi and Sheik Jenaid, which are quieter. Kindi in particular, an upper middle class neighborhood northwest of the Green Zone, seems as peaceful as an average American suburb on the day I join a patrol. This allows the task force to back reconstruction projects there that get stalled by the fighting on Haifa Street, a point that Capt. Ford tries to drive home to the residents of Karkh every time he ventures there.
Headhunter's commanding officer, Lt. Col Thomas Macdonald, often accompanies Ford on missions into Karkh to try to spread the word about projects, which include sewer and electrical repairs, and school renovations. He tells me 1-6 has spent about a million and a half dollars in their overall area, which is on top of the two and a half million spent by 1st AD before them. But projects around Haifa Street keep stalling due the fighting.
It was on Haifa Street that a battle took place in early September, which I watched from the roof of my hotel across the Tigris. One of 1-9's Bradleys was destroyed by a car bomb, and after a firefight that lasted all morning, the battalion withdrew and sent in Kiowas to blow up the vehicle before its radios and weapons could be looted. In the ensuing explosions and shooting, 13 Iraqis celebrating on the burning vehicle were killed, as well as a reporter for an Arabic news station. At the time I couldn't understand why the battalion had broken contact with the enemy and then used helicopters to such devastating effect on apparent civilians. After 10 days on Haifa Street I began to see things differently.
One afternoon I join 2nd Platoon, Charlie Co., 1-153 of the Little Rock, Arkansas National Guard. They're attached to 1-6, and patrol some of the worst areas of the AO. They've collected 22 purple hearts.
They're scheduled to do a "disrupt and deny" mission, patrolling the Sheik Marouf neighborhood looking for anything suspicious.
Platoon leader Lt. Cole Derosa is just about to give the pre-mission briefing when he abruptly gets called back to the operations center. The soldiers look at one another knowingly.
"Here we go. . . that's trouble."
Sure enough, Derosa returns with bad news: an unmanned reconnaissance plane has gone down near Haifa Street, so we're being diverted to the area where the battalion thinks it was downed. The plane is small enough to be launched by hand, so it's unlikely we'll find anything; but there's a danger of insurgents using it to launch an IED back at the base.
Derosa is all wiry energy, impatient, it seems, with the very time that it takes to form words.
"We'll push up 17th Street on foot, gents, two Bradleys in front, two in the rear -- too easy! There's probable anti-Iraqi forces embedded in the area. Remember, keep your spacing, that's a force protection multiplier. Not a problem! We do the job others don't want to do. There's nothing they can bring to us that we haven't already seen -- we'll play fire with fire. Good to go!"
We mount up, cramming eight people into a Bradley. It's hot, dark and oppressive inside, dimly lit from the small blast-proof windows ringing the ceiling. Everyone looks grim; a soldier crosses himself.
We finally arrive; the rear door drops open and we all pour out into the late afternoon sunlight. There aren't any bullets flying, but the streets around the square are deserted. Regardless, it's a relief to be on the ground. Snipers set up an observation post and two teams of soldiers start up 17th Street, cautiously advancing on either side of the big avenue. Two Apaches roar overhead and begin prowling the streets above us.
Scattered storefronts are open with young men watching us warily. We move slowly, setting up firing positions at each intersection before dashing across. At one intersection a car starts to approach. The translator hollers at the men to stop. They do, but then slowly begin creeping forward again. Finally Staff Sgt. Scott Worley orders a warning shot. Looking disgusted, the driver and his passenger leave the car and retreat back down the alleyway. Here and there kids dart past the alleys, obviously excited by the tension gripping these empty streets.
At last we arrive to within a block of Haifa Street. There's no sign of the plane. The Iraqi men that Derosa's talked to claim to have no idea about it, except one, who says that AK fire brought it down and that it might have crashed in the big cemetery just to our west. We're retracing our steps when a long burst of machine gun fire breaks the silence. It sounds loud even though I've got earplugs in. Someone has shot from the rooftops above us at the soldiers across the street. The firing was wild and hit above their heads. The shooter vanished before anyone could spot a target.
We comb through the cemetery, which, Arab-style, is jammed with little tombs, stacked almost on top of one another. By the time we emerge a few blocks away, people are out on the street again, and many are cheerily smiling at us. Everyone feels the tension breaking at last.
The following day I'm back in the heart of the troublesome area between Cairo and Haifa Streets with Lt. Derosa and Charlie Co. 1-153, to maintain a presence in the neighborhood and look for weapons caches in a large dusty lot next to the Tigris.
For an hour we pick our way through the labyrinthine streets of Khark, as curious residents come out from their houses to watch us. Many of the old houses are in partial states of ruin, but I see curtains in the crumbling windows. An old woman with brightly hennaed hair emerges from one house, dressed in a traditional multi-colored dress and heavy silver jewelry. She grins at me toothlessly when I snap her picture, perhaps unaware of what's going on.
Eventually we emerge from the dark maze of alleys onto the riverbank, among old buildings by the former British embassy, overlooking the Tigris. All the stately old brick houses here are dilapidated, surrounded by bales of rusty barbed wire, like aging royalty wearily eying the slow brown water below and waiting for better times.
We follow the riverbank north to an old lot by the bridge that crosses to Russafi Square. Some of the soldiers crouch behind a low brick wall perpendicular to the river to provide cover while others poke about the piles of garbage, looking for weapons.
Suddenly the huge explosion of a grenade punctures the silence, a couple of blocks west of us. It's followed by more grenades; the team providing security for the snipers has been attacked, but no one seriously hurt. The soldiers around me are chuckling -- word is passed up that one of the grenades failed to clear a wall and bounced back at the thrower. As is often the case, the attackers have either been killed or quickly disappeared down the tiny streets. We mount back into the Bradleys and head back to base.
* * *
Several days of aggressive operations along Haifa Street start with briefings the night before from the various companies' officers. I'm joining Charlie Co. 1-9, commanded by Capt Chris Ford, whose platoons will be focusing on the information operations part of the mission as well as raiding houses for suspects. As the PAO Capt. Victor Sharstein points out, all the battalion's companies have to be prepared for combat in this hostile area.
The night before, Ford goes over the plans with his lieutenants and sergeants. A platoon has arrived from the Green Zone with Abrams tanks to add to the armor surrounding Haifa Street during the operation. All the companies are going in, with Bradleys, 113s and trucks, so there's an intricate plan just to get out of the base at 5:00 am, and set up in various staging areas around the objective. Charlie 1-153 and Charlie 1-9 will be doing raids to look for suspects and weapons. Alpha Co. will be searching the dangerous apartment buildings lining Haifa; snipers will be posted in multiple locations, including a huge water tower nearby; and the Bradleys and Abrams will be stationed along the main streets, turrets moving back and forth looking for targets.
One of the main problems will be avoiding friendly fire. Ford grills his team leaders and NCOs on potential problems.
"Sergeant, you've got three casualties in your sector -- what do you do?"
"Lieutenant, on the left side of our vehicle there's one element -- who are they?"
Ford's Holy Grail is gaining intelligence from the community. He's anxious to engage people on the streets, challenging them to take a chance with the new government. "Our foothold in the door is convincing someone that we're good enough to talk to."
At 4:15 am I join up with 3rd Platoon. I'll be walking the neighborhood with Lt. David Panian and Sgt. Steven Heard of 1st Squad. Heard narrowly escaped injury a couple of days ago when a sniper's round went through a corner of his vest and was stopped by a pair of steel ammo magazines, spinning him around. Both Heard and Panian have been wounded by grenades on Haifa Street.
The base seems to vibrate with the sounds of so many engines rumbling, the vehicles lined up at the gate, soldiers milling about and checking gear. At last we roll out and soon arrive at a large dusty lot on the edge of the Haifa Street neighborhood. The platoon moves out into the dark streets, to the sound of the first roosters crowing.
The streets are still deserted as we venture into the tight alleyways that wind through the district. The houses are poor, disheveled brick structures, some with old wooden covered balconies. Power lines criss-cross overhead, jury-rigged into looping spiderwebs.
1st Squad arrives at a building that they've been told houses a suspect they're looking for. The soldiers kick in the door and rush inside. The family groggily gathers in the living room and politely produces identity papers that seem to prove that the husband is not the man we're looking for. The house has a middle-class neatness to it, and the family is patient. Lt. Panian apologizes through the translator, and leaves them with a claimant's form for repairs to the door. After this, the plan is to continue door to door down several streets, checking people for IDs and weapons. The platoon will simply knock on doors, and leave for the next house if no one answers. In one deserted shell of a house a single mortar round is discovered, perhaps left for a mortar team to fire and run.
An hour later we're on the next street, and Sgt Heard recognizes a boy from the week before who was warning other kids off the street shortly before two grenades rolled down it. We follow the boy, who's perhaps 13 years old into his ramshackle house, barely more than plaster walls leaning against the adjoining houses. His mother appears with his two younger brothers and starts a long tearful argument on why he shouldn't be arrested, ending with, "If he's gotten into trouble, I'll keep him inside from now on."
Panian is certain the kid is working with the insurgency, and won't be put off. Indeed, there is something quite strange about the boy. His face is long and hardened, as if from a life of hardship. But he looks at me and holds my gaze, with an odd expression I can't interpret. He seems resigned to his fate, all energy gone, save for his strangely piercing eyes.
Panian gives his fingers a swipe field test for TNT-type explosives, which comes up positive, although the test is crude and can produce false positives. Suspects taken in are given a more accurate test at the base. As a soldier escorts the boy down the street, his mother follows, wailing, pleading her case to the curious neighbors who've come out to watch, a seemingly timeless Middle Eastern scene.
A few doors down, another strange drama ensues; an old man dressed in a filthy suit, his head swathed in cloth like a Rastafarian, shouts in English that the boy next door is a Saddam loyalist. The man seems deranged, but we have to enter the house he's pointing to anyway. Several women and one slender teenager come forward in the simple, open foyer. The old man suddenly barges in, screaming that the boy is evil, a Saddamist.
Jumping forward with surprising strength, he lands two heavy punches on the boy's cheeks. The young man does nothing to resist, as if defending himself would violate some taboo. After intervening, Sgt. Heard asks him for his identification papers, but the young man says he's left them at his parent's house. A woman, very pregnant, protectively moves next to him.
An explosives test is administered, which comes up positive, but Heard seems unconvinced, as if something here doesn't make sense. The man tells the translator simply that it's a complicated story. The translator explains, "The guy get in trouble with his family because they don't like that girl he marry. They won't let him get his stuff. The guy next door is his uncle."
He's quiet and dignified. I think Heard feels some empathy for him. He tells him, "The next time we're in the area, we'll come by; just make sure that you don't test positive for explosives."
As we're moving down the street a grenade explosion goes off to our right, from Haifa Street. It's followed by a loud rifle shot, which is quickly answered by a burst of automatic weapons fire from close by. The firefight mushrooms and we all duck for cover. Over the radio Panian hears that the snipers on the water tower are taking fire from the tall apartment buildings on Haifa Street.
An hour later the snipers' duel is still going on. The Americans can't pinpoint where the shooter is located. He's probably firing from behind a wall in an apartment, hiding his muzzle flash. The sound of the shots echoes hopelessly off the tall buildings, making it difficult to tell what direction they're coming from, let alone which building. We've joined up with Capt. Ford and his squad, so now some twenty men are positioned along the block. Ford wants to try to flank the sniper, getting close enough to identify his location. Just as he peers around a corner in the direction of the sniper, a shot rings out, and he quickly pulls back.
Listening to the sound of the bullets, Ford says thoughtfully, "You can only hear the sonic echo, not the report; we have to get closer -- can we get through these buildings somehow? Is there a back way? Let's probe around."
Young Lt. Brian Kunihiro, carrying Ford's radio, looks shaken by the violence of the bullets and grenades. He's just arrived from Rangers School, and this is his first time in combat, but he seems determined to stay alert and responsive. Meanwhile, on Haifa Street Alpha Co. is working its way through some of the apartment complexes.
Foot traffic has died down, but clusters of people are hanging around in the small alleyways, watching us. We have to backtrack and snake our way forward to avoid the sniper's firing lanes. Even so, we take turns dashing across the open squares with the evil towers of the Haifa Street apartments looking down at us unforgivingly. Soon we're a block away, and the danger from grenades seems palpable. But now the firing has stopped. We've been on our feet for six hours. I'm tired and drenched even though the low cloud cover is keeping the city cooler than usual.
Battalion HQ calls off the hunt. We make our way back through the dusty streets. The soldiers seem frustrated over not locating the shooter. While waiting for word of the pick up, Ford and his lively translator Riyad engage a crowd about the insurgency, which has ground the battalion's projects in Karkh to a halt.
Ford says, "Do you know how much money we put into Kendi, Sheik Jenaid? And they put no money here because they think that the people here don't care enough."
A dark-skinned, burly man argues with Ford.
"When I go outside my house the Americans tell me I can't leave -- just like the terrorists."
Ford replies, "Am I telling you to go inside your house now? Of course three days ago I convinced my boss that I could sit right over there at that tea house and have chai. I was there for maybe two minutes when two grenades landed right here. . . . You know I hate the fact that I have to go knocking on peoples' doors, asking for IDs. What I envisioned was that my men and you would be picking up shovels, working on projects."
It's impossible to tell if Ford's words have had any effect, but his open demeanor and quick humor seem to have endeared him to some of the men and boys.
"It's like 20 minutes of foreplay to get past all the initial blocks to conversation, the conspiracies and all that. Then you can start to talk," he says.
* * *
The next day we return to Haifa Street, this time to the large apartment high-rises overlooking Tala'a Square. The plan is to drop sniper teams from Alpha Co. and have Charlie 1-9 provide security in several buildings. Then, after about an hour everyone will leave the building and return to base while the snipers secretly set up in one of the empty apartments to watch for insurgent activity. Meanwhile Charlie 1-9 will be ready for a quick return should things heat up.
The plan goes smoothly, and no rounds are fired or grenades thrown. But after a couple of hours back at the FOB we get radio reports of shooting. The snipers spot some men unloading two large boxes from a car and placing them in a concrete trash bin. A short while later they see three men pistol-whipping a fourth man, then forcing him into a car. Thinking it may be a kidnapping in progress, they shoot the three men.
At this point their positions are known and enemy fire starts up. I join four soldiers on one of the Bradleys for the trip back in. It's a tense ride because trouble is expected, but in fact, the street is quiet as we dash for cover with several other teams. I hole up in the lobby of one building with my companions from the Bradley and wait. Engineers have been called up to search the garbage bin where the boxes were hidden. A grenade goes off, and there's sporadic fire, a burst from an AK followed by the huge chatter of a 50 cal in response. Around the corner, Capt. Ford and his team get raked with automatic weapons fire, but they've all taken cover behind the complex's large columns and no one is hurt. They return fire. Ford tells me later, "It's a good thing you weren't with my team; every column was occupied with my guys taking cover."
The engineers find that the boxes hidden in the trash bin contain scores of Chinese-made grenades; the order goes out to collect everyone and move out. Now the firing is picking up as the insurgents sense that the platoons are leaving. Another grenade shakes the ground with a fearsome bang. Then in response, the deep rumble from 1-9's 50 caliber guns. I hear later that the same teenager who was spotted throwing the earlier grenade was seen getting ready to throw another, and promptly shot. We dash back to our Bradley, and begin to convoy out. Strangely, Haifa Street is quiet again.
* * *
The final mission I join is an information operation in Saddamiya, an ugly little corner of Baghdad in between Haifa Street and the Tigris, Tala'a Square at its southern edge. I've stayed an extra day to join this mission, canceling a rendezvous with a friend at the Green Zone Caf. That day the caf is destroyed by a car bomb, I learn later, killing several customers.
Saddamiya is the recent name for the area where Saddam grew up, learning toughness on its mean, old streets. As a ruler, he leveled the neighborhood, rebuilding it as a sort of Le Corbusier-de Chirico fantasy of concrete and brick, partially walled off from the rest of the city, a refuge for his favorites and their families. While it's assumed that the residents of Saddamiya have little affection for the Americans, there hasn't been too much trouble there for 1st Cav, whose commanders figure that these wealthier families want to keep the fighting out of their own backyards.
The mission is to talk to its residents, to try to find out what they need in terms of projects and convince them that it's in their interest to help the U.S. and Iraqi forces. Charlie Co.'s 2nd and 3rd Platoons are going, in what's expected to be a short mission.
Lt. David Panian is scheduled to go on leave tomorrow. Customarily, a soldier doesn't go out on mission the day before leave, but Panian hates to let his platoon go without him. Panian is tall and quiet, and his open, rawboned features bear a resemblance to the actor William Macy. He tends to listen before talking, which gives his words extra weight. This morning he looks worried, as the troops mill around the open hatches of the idling Bradleys. A sergeant strides by, shouting, "Three minutes! Three minutes!" Sgt Steven Heard says reassuringly, as much to himself as the lieutenant, "Two hours! It's just gonna be two hours today."
Inside the Bradley it's hot and cramped, as we rumble out of the base. It's just before 1:00 in the afternoon. The air conditioning isn't working and I notice everyone's faces are tense and glistening with sweat. Only First Sgt. Luke Lichtenwalner's features look relaxed, or at least unreadable.
Finally the hatch drops and we're trotting down Haifa Street along a tall concrete wall with a large steel gate on our right, inscribed in gold Arabic letters. Soldiers are shouting, and a teenager opens up the gate. Inside it looks dreamlike, like the entrance to some kind of resort: a road bends out of sight, amid dense stands of trees. The two squads split up, one following the road. I join Capt. Ford as his men cross a small meadow and follow a wide brick path through the trees until it meets a street, where the squads meet back up. Along both sides of the street are rows of identical three-story brick apartments framed by a concrete faade of archways on the sidewalks. The streets are deserted, save for one man selling soda out of a small shop, and a few open doorways which reveal families inside. They studiously ignore us as we pass by. It's utterly quiet.
Tensely, the soldiers fan out, moving deliberately from arch to arch, crossing the intersections quickly. We make a left down one of the smaller side streets. I can see the houses on the next street are identical to this one, eerily like an exercise in drawing perspective. Just past them, we enter a road fronting the tall banks of the Tigris and circle back around. Passing a mosque, Panian mutters, "Jesus, this place is like a ghost town. Usually it's filled with people." Here and there we pass parked cars, and I tense up, dreading that huge final blast as I jog past. In one side street, a small group of men and boys are washing a car and hanging out on the curb. They return our waves dispassionately, not smiling.
We're circling the perimeter of Saddamiya, a block from Haifa Street, when two grenades get thrown at the rear of our column. Both fall short and Staff Sgt. Sam Walton and Spc. Randall Clasp open up with their M-16s. It's almost a relief, after all the oppressive silence. Two men threw the grenades from opposite corners of Haifa Street. The soldiers got a look at the two and think they may have killed one. Ford's on the radio; the snipers report a body lying on Haifa Street, but when we get there it turns out to be a drunk, who mumbles something and puts his head back down.
Ford gets the OK from headquarters to start searching the buildings on the block; we have to cross back over Haifa Street. Wary of sniper fire in spite of the Bradleys sitting in the middle of the avenue, everyone in the platoon is taking cover as much as possible. We run into one of the buildings, a four-story apartment, while a second squad enters the adjacent building. Ford and Panian direct the soldiers to quickly secure the building and begin checking the apartments for men who match the description of the grenade throwers: two males, one in a tan shirt, the other in a wife-beater. A young man in a brown shirt walks by across the street, and Basim, our Kurdish translator, motions him to cross over. Apprehensive, but willing, he submits to the explosives test. He tests negative and Ford tells him he can go.
I've had to pee for quite some time, and take the opportunity, while the soldiers are knocking on apartment doors. I go to the back yard, keeping out of sight of the tall buildings a block away and find a corner with some trash that's not close to anyone's hanging laundry, and lift the groin protector of my flack jacket. Alone for a minute, I can feel my heart pounding hard against the ceramic plates of the jacket. As I'm about to pee, another grenade goes off nearby, and I dash back inside, zipping my pants up. Firing starts up again; further up Haifa Street, grenades are being thrown at the Bradleys, and it's awhile before I summon up the nerve to relieve myself.
It's now just past 2:00, not much more than an hour since we left the base. The platoon has found a couple of guys in the apartments who have similar shirts to the grenade throwers. One produces an Iraqi police ID, but he tests positive for explosives, and the platoon gets ready to move out with the suspects. First Capt. Ford wants to question anyone he can find back in Saddamiya, retracing our steps a block east, leaving a team in one of the buildings with the suspects.
While we're in Saddamiya, up a block on Tala'a Square team leader Sgt. Ryan Munroe is directing his squad from 2nd Platoon in securing one of the tall apartment buildings. His men are lined up behind the columns at the building's base. One of those men is Spc. Josiah Vandertulip, a friend of Munroe's. Coincidentally, they went to the same high school, but didn't know each other. They've become friends here, working on a song together about their experiences. Vandertulip is assigned to the JLENS crew, which manages 1-9's observation blimp. Like the rest of his crew, he routinely volunteers for these missions, not wanting to let Charlie Co. do all the infantry work.
Vandertulip notices something in one of the buildings across the square. Leaning out past the column, he says, "Sir, something's going on over there." A loud shot rings out and the young specialist falls.
We're returning to Haifa Street when we hear the shot, followed by heavy return fire from the Bradleys. We crouch among the parked cars, Ford talking on Lt. Kunihiro's radio. In the flurry of numbers and acronyms that make up military transmissions I hear the words "man down."
Ford's on the net to the Bradleys: "2nd just took a sniper, man down. You need to push forward, get a medevac, over."
Then, "We have one friendly KIA, over."
A strange quiet has descended among this group of soldiers. Kunihiro has lost his apprehension of a few days before; now everyone just seems stunned, waiting for some path to fighting, and release. Ford is hurriedly issuing instructions to the elements on Haifa, telling them to lock down the street and the intersection with 17th Street, Tala'a Square, where 1-9's snipers and 2nd Platoon think the enemy sniper is shooting from.
"We're going to bound forward to the objective."
The suspects are let go, as the platoon assembles on Haifa for a quick run on Tala'a Square. There, a Bradley is back-ending towards a building to pick up Spc. Vandertulip's body, when it starts taking small arms fire. 1-9's snipers return fire, and are answered with large caliber rounds from an enemy machine gun. The snipers can see tracer rounds from the building across the street, where we're headed.
Now our platoon is moving swiftly up the colonnaded street. We're jumping from column to column, amidst the cacophony of Bradleys unleashing their rounds on the rooftops overlooking the square. When I get to the edge of the square I join six men in a breathless sprint across 17th Street, of perhaps 300 yards, while the Bradleys are pounding away. Jumping into the open feels like leaping off a cliff. Somewhere in the middle of the dash it occurs to me that physical exhaustion really could make me give up in the face of death.
A team rushes up the eight-story building to secure the roof. There's no sign of the sniper. Apaches are now circling overhead. I suddenly realize that I haven't called my wife. I make the call everyday at 3:15 pm when she's getting up, to reassure her that I'm fine. It's 3:00 now. I'm panicked at the thought of her fear. I've got my sat phone with me, and crouch behind a tall dumpster past the last soldier at the base of the building, but I can't get a signal. First Sgt. Luke Lichtenwalner warns me to get back, and I explain that I've got to get to the rooftop to make the call.
I'm afraid he'll think it's idiotic, but he locates Capt. Ford to see if anyone's heading up. "You can't go up alone, the floor's aren't secured until the roof. Wait a bit," Lichtenwalner tells me. Ford is concentrating on directing his elements around the square, listening to the radio. He looks up at me and the 1st Sergeant, and says distractedly, "Fuck! We've just got to beat this fucker -- we just got to beat him."
At 3:16 I can't wait any longer, and push up the stairs, past small groups of Iraqis and soldiers in some of the stairwells. I find Lt. Panian on the top floor.
"I've got to make a sat phone call from the roof -- can you let the Apaches know it's a friendly on the roof?"
"OK", he says, "But keep down."
Flat on the roof, with Panian standing near, I wait for the signal to pick up. At last it registers and I dial the number, hurriedly explaining to my wife that I'm in the middle of a mission, but I'm fine.
Downstairs, the building manager is accompanying the soldiers through the apartments, most of which are locked and empty, the residents having moved out weeks ago as the fighting increased. His men can break down any of the doors, but Panian wants to use this force judiciously. The apartments look stylish and modern. In one apartment there are three women and their mother. Panian's polite, but firm that the dwelling must be searched, and the women are gracious about it.
Downstairs we find that a brick wall has been hastily built in front of the apartment foyer, with a hole knocked into it. It could potentially be a sniper's hideout. The manager says that two men from Syria lived here briefly. I don't like the manager. He's a tall man in his 60s; he's obviously proud of his command of English. He protests when Panian wants to break in to one apartment, saying, "I will tell you, this is an old man living here. Well, of course you will do what you have to do."
There's something both officious and smug about him, as if he knows he's in control of the situation. I overhear from Panian that he was on the roof with an air conditioning repairman when 3rd Platoon got there. He later tells me that the manager was at pains to convince him to let the repairman go, but in the end both are taken in, along with two other men from the building. On the first floor there's a scene, as several women start wailing that they'll be left unprotected without the manager. Panian radios the concern to headquarters, but they want the men brought in.
"Oh, he knows something, all right. They may have been policing up rounds from the sniper," Panian says.
The Bradleys wheel about to our building, and we pile in quickly, the suspects divided among the vehicles. One of the Bradley crews spots a man in a black T shirt and mask, who quickly turns around when he sees the vehicles. They shoot him.
Back at Headhunter's entrance, the exhausted men of Charlie Co. form lines in front of the rifle clearing barrels. The mood is one of resigned frustration and anger. A lieutenant approaches Capt. Ford, looking distraught. They confer quietly, and I see the young officer break down on Ford's shoulder, Ford tenderly putting his arms around the man.
Later, at the end of a long after-action briefing in which all the day's events are carefully gone over, Ford stands up to address the assembled officers and NCOs.
"We've inflicted a lot more damage on them than they have on us. But we need to maintain our aggressiveness -- I really feel like we're close to gaining the momentum on the insurgents. . . .
Your soldiers will react differently to what happened today. Some guys might get depressed; some guys will be angry. Angry's good, but I don't want men going crazy out there and shooting at everything that moves. If you can't handle it then you need to get the fuck out of crazyworld. I absolutely respect all of you. If any of your guys are having any issues, send him to me, send him to the 1st Sergeant, or send him to Chaplain Gidley, that's why he's here."
Later that night I see groups of men from Charlie Co. huddled around each other in front of Toby's Favorite Bar, Headhunter's non-alcoholic watering hole. Capt Ford and Lt. Col Macdonald are among them, as well as the chaplain. As they break up I approach Macdonald, 1-9's commanding officer. Macdonald fits the profile of a lot of battalion commanders, tough, steady, and unswervingly optimistic. But in our conversations he also struck me as balanced and thoughtful.
"It's been a bad day, but we'll beat this thing. You know, when we first came here the problems were IEDs primarily. We learned how to cope with them -- I haven't had anyone killed by an IED in a long time. We'll figure out how to deal with this. I'm a guy who sees the glass as half full. I really think we're making progress. I think as the elections get close one of the major propaganda points of the insurgents will get negated -- the idea that we're here to stay as an occupying power."
* * *
On the morning of October 7th, Charlie Co. 1-9 gathers in the mess hall for Sgt. Jack Hennessy's memorial service. Hennessy was killed by friendly fire from ING soldiers during a firefight six days earlier. He was known for being a very aggressive and motivated team leader, a hard-charger. These qualities, or perhaps others, endeared him to a lot of the soldiers who served with him. In one conversation I overheard a soldier say simply, "God, I miss Jack. I wish he was here."
LTC Macdonald and Capt Ford each give a small speech. SFC Eduardo Granado starts to talk and can barely continue as his voice cracks. The hall is filled with the sound of men sniffling, not holding back their tears.
After the Chaplain says a prayer, 1st Sergeant Luke Lichtenwalner steps to the front of the hall, and calls out in a clear voice, "Specialist Leslie!"
"Here, First Sergeant!"
"Here, First Sergeant!"
"Here, First Sergeant!"
The room is silent. There's a long pause.
"Sergeant Jack Hennessy!"
Again, a silence.
"Sergeant Jack Taft Hennessy!!"
In the quiet that follows I find my own tears falling onto my drawing pad. A 21 gun salute is going off outside, followed by the long, lonely notes of taps, as the soldiers of Charlie Co., one by one, file in front of Sgt. Hennessy's evlar, perched on his rifle, and salute.
* * *
When I get back to my hotel the following week Baghdad's streets feel more dangerous than ever. A rocket has hit the nearby Sheraton; reporters are largely confined to their hotel rooms amid a rash of kidnappings. Only five other people are staying at the Al Fanar: an American contractor, his Iraqi wife and a British colleague, a rather mysterious Japanese woman who tells me she runs a massage parlor in the Green Zone, and a reporter, a young French woman who I occasionally spot in a headscarf, in the lobby.
Drivers and hotel staff, with little work to do, hang out there, watching TV, while a lone macaque monkey in a small cage stares quietly out the lobby window at the street. In an effort to salvage something from this depressing scene I'd tried to arrange for this monkey to be transferred to Baghdad's zoo, but the hotel owner refused to sell.
For several days I stay within the confines of the security zone around the hotels, while my friends Esam and Ahmed come to visit. I'm quite sure my movements are being watched, and when I'm finally ready to leave Iraq I tell the hotel staff I'm going to visit a friend for a day before leaving town.
However, the hotel driver, Farouk, looks not in the least surprised when I ask him to take me directly to the airport. We drive past the blighted landscape of palm tree stumps next to the highway, cut down and bulldozed to lessen the danger of ambushes. After 30 minutes we pass the first military checkpoint at the airport's outskirts, and I breathe a sigh of relief.
STEVE MUMFORD is a New York artist. This is the 16th installment of his "Baghdad Journal." His artwork is represented by Postmasters in New York. Baghdad Journal will be published as a book in fall 2005 by Drawn & Quarterly in Montreal.