Baghdad, Aug. 25 -- I arrived a week ago at the base of the National Guard's 3rd Battalion, 124th Infantry, now patrolling the Baghdad neighborhoods of Al Wasiria and Maghreb, or, in military parlance, sector 17. The guard took over this sector from the army a couple of months ago, and has been working hard to win over the hearts and minds of its citizens ever since.
The base is a former Iraqi officers' club, and like everything directed at Saddam's military elite, it's styled along the lines of a Donald Trump production: huge, spacious and plenty of mirrored glass.
I'm ushered past the razor wire, dirt berms and tall gates, rolling my luggage behind me. At the entrance I meet Capt. Jack McClellan, the PAO and personnel officer for the battalion. He's a friendly guy, with a decidedly nonmilitary bearing, informal and relaxed. Back in the States, he teaches history at Jefferson County High School, in a rural, economically struggling community with its share of poverty-related crime.
Even though it is a difficult job, involving a lot of disciplining, Jack seems to love teaching, and the kids -- skills which are surely applicable in the guard's assignment here in Baghdad, given the importance of overcoming the mistrust of the local population. Jack is in a particularly good mood at the moment, because his wife just sent him the latest season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD, a passion he can't seem to get his roommates to share.
Jack takes me over to the command post for Alpha Company, which is currently conducting the patrols in the sector. There I meet some of the officers and staff sergeants. Lt. Corbin Sawyer is the Intel Officer for the base -- his task is civil affairs and he tries to orient the guard's missions towards facilitating self-sufficiency and the beginnings of a representative political system in the neighborhood.
Like McClellan, Sawyer's manner is informal. He's respectful and friendly when out on patrol or questioning people on weapons sweeps, and has a Curious George doll buckled disarmingly to his flack vest.
Rifle companies from this battalion joined the 3rd ID on its march to Baghdad during the war, yet the guard defines itself less in terms of fighting wars than in taking control in disasters and helping to improve the situation. Since they normally train on weekends, the men all have regular jobs, which generally makes them more understanding when dealing with civilians and brings a large pool of experience from the civilian sector to the force. One of their first acts was to rehabilitate the soccer stadium, which had been used for dug-in fortifications by the Republican Guard (the inaugural game was played between the guard and a local team; the guard was trounced).
Besides patrolling, 3-124 has been working closely with the neighborhood council, first helping it to get going and then overseeing and funding its projects, like cleaning streets and parks of the mountains of trash that had accumulated since the war. Even more importantly, the unit helps hook the council up with NGOs, which in some cases have a lot of money but don't know where to spend it.
Often this meant going to the NGOs at their hotels and providing them with transportation to make sure that the meeting happened. As a result, the council and the NGOs are now working independently on projects. The key, according to Sawyer, was to make clear to the Iraqis that the U.S. wouldn't do things for them, only help with money and logistics after the council had done its work.
The battalion, based in northern Florida, is the first combat arms unit from the National Guard to serve in a war since Korea, a fact that rankles some of the enlisted men I've spoken to, who joined the guard expecting that they would stay close to home. Some say that the army gets better treatment, even though they're doing the same job. Since guard units are funded and equipped by their states, their equipment tends to be different and older than the regular army's.
Morale tends to be higher in the rifle companies, which leave the base continuously on patrolling missions as well as occasional sweeps and raids. Although things have been relatively quiet in the last few weeks, the soldiers are all aware of the dangers -- snipers and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) placed along the roadside.
The most difficulty they've had recently took place when the killing of Saddam's two sons was announced; the neighborhood erupted in celebratory gunfire. What goes up must come down, and some 40 Iraqis had to be hospitalized with wounds from these "God bullets," with two later dying. The base's roof guards took cover inside from the falling rounds and one patrol from Bravo Company found itself in a firefight which the Iraqis initiated under cover of the celebration; a little girl was killed in the crossfire.
One of the base's employees, Ibrahim Hussein, came to work the next day with a bullet in his neck. The local doctor wouldn't remove it because Ibrahim couldn't pay. To the dismay of the rifle company where he works, the battalion surgeon wouldn't extract it either ("not one of our bullets"), so the soldiers took Ibrahim back to the Iraqi doctor and made it clear he didn't have a choice in the matter.
Death threats have been issued against anyone who works with the Americans, so all the workers and translators are taking a real risk, which the guardsmen appreciate.
Patrolling is done on the squad level, eight or so men in two Humvees, sometimes with an interpreter. Most of the men here speak with the subdued Southern drawl of the Panhandle, but there are exceptions. Lt. Paul Reickoff of Bravo Company lives in New York, just eight blocks from where I live. His girlfriend, a musician named Laura Thomas, plays local venues like CBGBs. Specialist Barry Lovelace of Alpha Company is a Tlingt Indian from the Yinyiedi Clan, of Alaska and British Columbia.
Some of these guys got called up from their units to join the Florida Guard, to fill out the ranks of the battalion. (There were cases of men going AWOL or claiming conscientious objector status when it was announced that the battalion would be going to war.)
On Tuesday, Aug. 19, I accompany Staff Sergeant Mike Koch of 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, and his squad of eight men on patrol of the northern part of their sector, starting with the river Tigris, which is just across the road from the back of the base. A mile south is an access road that leads down a long masonry embankment to the broad sandy bank fringed with reeds. Here there are some small barge remnants from which local kids jump into the river; also the remains of Uday's steel-hulled catamaran, which looters have progressively reduced to just the half-sunken double hull.
We poke around the muddy river edge and dunes looking for signs of weapons caches. Then it's off to the Indian and Italian embassies to keep them posted about car bombs; this a day after the bombing at the UN compound. This part of town is relatively wealthy -- large houses with walled-in gardens, though the streets are still small and dirty.
The man we meet at the Indian Embassy is a small, puckish fellow wearing a black tee shirt with the silhouette of a man in a target sight over the words "shoot to kill." He right away jumps to avoid Sgt. Koch's gun muzzle pointed at the ground by his foot. "Don't shoot me with that thing!" While Koch is talking, the man half-listening, offering us all cigarettes; "Ah, of course, you Americans don't smoke, so you can live forever."
At the Italian embassy it's quite different -- a substantially walled compound, a suave, arrogant ambassador accompanied by bodyguards who could have been styled by Gautier -- lean, tan and buff, in short shorts and penny loafers, sporting berettas. Still further contrast is the Turkish embassy, which we don't enter but which looks like Pablo Escobar's fortress, with long steel rods cast into cement blocks holding razor wire some 20 feet out from the compound walls.
Along the way we do a lot of meeting and greeting, checking in at community centers, the law school, waving to people along the way who mostly wave back and smile. The kids are the most enthusiastic: boys and girls grin, hold up their thumbs, scream "hello, Mister!," race along beside the Humvees. I've sensed no hostility towards the soldiers, at worst indifference.
As we're passing a park someone fires five or six rounds. The gunner can't see where they're coming from, so he ducks down. We circle several times round the block. There's a wedding in progress three blocks away, but the shots came from closer. Indeed, a man who runs a sort of mini-bar by the river says he saw someone jump in a car and drive away. Another mystery.
Later, I go on night patrol with Staff Sergeant Andrew Riehle. Riehle's got a wry Southern wit and a cool disposition; over his shaved head he wears the camouflage bandana that's the prerogative of the team leaders. It's quiet, the oven-blast heat of the day finally receding. In spite of the peace of the last few weeks, the men of Alpha are gearing up for the patrol: M-16 magazines slapped into place, extra rounds pocketed, Kevlar chin straps fastened. "Yo, you all set? I got your back, brother."
The staff sergeants confer on the mission plan in quiet voices, next to the idling Humvees, the gunner settles into his harness, locking his swiveling 50 caliber mount into place. All the faces are startlingly young, yet sober as they ready to leave the base. The guard lifts the bar at the rear gate and we roar out, heading south along the river.
The city is mostly dark, windows shuttered. Occasional groups of men sitting on plastic chairs outside a business, chatting, or workers staining furniture in the cool of the night. As we drive one of the guys sings a Violent Femmes lyric. We spot a solitary burning tire blocking off a small street next to the gas station. We circle around cautiously to check it out. Riehle is always worried that this kind of thing could be meant to lure Americans into an ambush -- or it could be just a burning tire.
All these Humvees have a similar, pleasant smell, of old canvas, sweat, and boot leather. The radio beeps intermittently as the sergeant talks softly into his mouthpiece to the lead vehicle. As we drive, two high-powered flashlight beams play over the rooftops and sidewalks: we're scanning for snipers and for IEDs, usually a grenade or some other explosive hidden in some trash with two wires coming out of it for detonation.
We're rounding a half blockade made of a felled palm tree when the sergeant notices wires coming out of a plastic bag perched on one end of the trunk. We pull over down the road and get out to investigate; neighbors emerge from their houses, we examine the bag from a distance by flashlight. Eventually it's discovered to be just that: an empty bag with two wires coming out of it, perhaps deliberately placed to scare U.S. troops.
A half hour later we come across a wreck on the highway, a taxi that's been totaled, six men standing around. It's not clear where the other car went, but we help them shove the car to the side of the highway. Three of the Iraqis are barefoot, unconcerned about the broken glass. One man's head is bruised and we offer him a doctor, but we can't do anything about the car. They don't seem too disappointed, and merrily wave as we go off.
As we're finishing up, there's yet another gunshot from very close, around the corner from where we had dismounted for a quick check of the area. We gather at the corner, but there are no follow-up shots, so we head back to base.
In general, Baghdad seems to me to be better than it was two months ago, despite the rise in bombings. Many of the huge mounds of trash are cleaned up, the curbs repainted, less gunfire at night. The endless gas station lines are much shorter, the traffic snarls less intense and there's more electricity at night, although still far from enough. Most importantly, the Iraqis of Al Wasiria seem to like these Americans, often calling out to them by name as they're on patrol.
There's a lot of contact between the Americans and the Iraqis in this sector. Staff Sergeant Christopher Blackwell of Pensacola is engaged to marry a local woman, a doctor, whom he met when she showed up to ask the battalion for help with a problem. Blackwell first asked her family for permission, then converted to Islam (for both, more of a technicality than a religious issue, though Blackwell versed himself in the Koran). They're waiting for a civil judge to perform the ceremony. Since the invasion there have been some 30 marriages between Americans and Iraqis.
The 3-124th will be leaving here in a month or so. It's unclear who'll replace it, but clear that the guard is leaving Al Wasiria and Maghreb in better shape than it found them.