GIs in Sadr City caught between warring Iraqi sides

McClatchy NewspapersApril 18, 2008 

BAGHDAD — Three weeks after U.S. troops were ordered into the sprawling Shiite Muslim slum of Sadr City to stop rockets from raining down on the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad's Green Zone, they're caught in crossfire between Shiite militiamen and the mostly Shiite Iraqi army.

American soldiers who try to move around this urban area, even in the U.S. Army's state-of-the-art Stryker armored vehicles, risk being ambushed. The soldiers in a platoon from the 25th Infantry Division quickly learned that holding a position puts them in the line of fire from both the Mahdi Army militia and the U.S.-backed Iraqi forces.

The American soldiers can't go on the offensive from the run-down two-story house they commandeered in south Sadr City, but must hunker down and wait to get shot at.

An Iraqi family evacuated the house just before the fighting started. It has rats and clogged toilets but no electricity or hot water, and no air conditioning or heating. The American soldiers have had one shower and barely a change of clothes since they got here.

Things got a lot worse last weekend, when bullets started flying at the house, targeting soldiers on the rooftop and in the rooms on the second floor.

"Where's it coming from?" the soldiers on the roof shouted to one another.

"I think it's coming from the north and west," one soldier said over the radio. "Is the Iraqi army shooting at us?"

Three times that day, the Iraqi army unit just up the road from the house was told to hold its fire because its erratic shots were hitting the house that its American allies occupied.

Three times, the Iraqis kept right on shooting.

"They told them to stop shooting," Lt. Adam Bowen, the platoon leader, told his men of the 3rd platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 25th Infantry Division, from Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.

More shots rang out.

"Well, that lasted," said Sgt. David Stine, 28, of Iola, Ill., laughing.

One floor below, in a green pastel living room decorated with a picture of a Japanese garden and a bouquet of plastic roses, Spc. Matthew Fisher of Evansville, Ill., pointed his weapon out the window, searching for snipers on the rooftops.

His buddies call him "I Spy" because of his knack for spotting things and sometimes seeing things that aren't there.

Bullets slammed into the green pastel door with a small window at the top, where Sgt. Jared Hicks, 23, of Three Rivers, Mich., stood guard behind a pile of bricks taken from the roof of the house, the muzzle of his rifle poking through the broken glass.

Just before 4 p.m., Bravo Company's commander went to the Iraqi army checkpoints up the road to demand that the Iraqis stop shooting.

Fisher looked out his window at the rooftops and saw a military-age man running on the roof across from him.

"Is that IA or JAM?" he asked, using the initials for the Iraqi army and for Jaysh al Mahdi, the Arabic name of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.

The Americans couldn't shoot until they were sure who was on the roof. Fisher looked at the sky and saw a flock of pigeons flying back and forth, following the directions of a man waving a flag. It appeared that militia groups were signaling each other.

CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE

Three weeks ago, Bowen's 3rd platoon was doing what it regarded as peacekeeping patrols, meeting local officials and tribal leaders in a relatively peaceful area north of Taji, which is about 12 miles north of Baghdad, checking out suspicious vehicles and searching for weapons caches.

Bowen and his men were sent to Baghdad after the Iraqi government launched a major offensive against Shiite militias in the southern port city of Basra. The Mahdi Army held off the government forces in Basra and neighboring provinces, then went on the offensive in Sadr's biggest stronghold, Sadr City, a slum in northeast Baghdad that's home to some 2.5 million people.

The Sadrists maintain that their Shiite rivals in the government of U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki are trying to undercut their power and popularity before provincial elections planned for October. The Sadrists, with a populist appeal to poor and marginalized Shiites, are likely to dominate Iraq's southern Shiite provinces in the elections.

Whatever the origin of Iraq's latest violent convulsions, American soldiers appear to have been dragged into the fight, backing the Shiite government against the Shiite Sadrists.

"It ticks you off it all started as an Iraqi offensive and now . . . it's definitely linked to Basra," said Lt. Col. Dan Barnett, the commander of the 1st Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, who's heading the American efforts in Sadr City. "I don't think it's over."

Bowen's 3rd platoon soldiers liked what they were doing in Taji, but in Sadr City, residents view U.S. soldiers as occupiers and worry that wherever the Americans are, trouble will follow.

"Before we came out here, I considered us peacekeepers, but now we're considered the bad guys," said Staff Sgt. Travis Evans, 33, of Seattle.

Outside the platoon's commandeered house, residents looked curiously at the U.S. soldiers who'd suddenly become their neighbors. Children picked through the garbage out front: khaki plastic bags from the young soldiers' preserved meals and bottles filled with urine because the toilets weren't working. The laughing children were quickly shooed away.

The platoon was supposed to stay just 96 hours. Now there's no end in sight.

"I guess we didn't expect this much resistance for their cause," Evans said.

HOME, HOT MEALS AND FAMILY

Amid the shooting at the roof and the second floor, Bowen was fighting his own battle against the stopped-up toilets on the ground floor. His weapons were duct tape and a pipe. Closing off the top of the pipe with the tape, he used the makeshift plunger to unclog the Eastern-style toilets, porcelain holes in the floor.

"It's times like this I realize the duality of war," he said. "The guys upstairs are shooting at people, and we're trying to figure out how to shove poop down a hole."

Bowen went to work pushing the human waste of his soldiers.

For the men of the 3rd platoon, life in Sadr City has been predictable boredom pierced by moments of sheer terror. In the 16 days they'd been in the district, they'd had one 12-hour break and suffered through an ambush by the Mahdi Army that destroyed one of their vehicles and nearly killed some of their men.

They lie on the uncomfortable sofas in the heat and talk about home, real toilets, hot meals and girlfriends, their wives and their children.

They borrowed toy guns from a store attached to the home, which provides a livelihood for the family that lives here, aimed the toys at one another and joked about their situation.

Over the radio, the soldiers heard that Sadr's brother-in-law had been killed, and that the assassination could increase the violence. They were told not to refer to the enemy as JAM but as insurgents or special groups.

"That's retarded," Bowen said. They were caught in a political crossfire as well as a real one.

"I hate Sadr City," Bowen said. Before his stint here, he'd sympathized with Iraqis who lived in misery and detested foreign occupation. "It's always the poor and lower middle class that fight. Look at us."

Now he finds it hard to sympathize, with bullets flying at his men.

Over the radio, a soldier reworked the words to Gloria Gaynor's song "I will survive."

"There once was a man, he was petrified," he sang. "He was scared every time he heard a ricochet off his vehicle."

'TELL HIM TO STOP COMING HERE'

The next day, the shooting died down and a bald-headed Iraqi dressed in a dishdasha, a long flowing gray robe, bravely walked up to the door of the house and called out to the U.S. soldiers with the only English word he knew.

"Mister!" he said.

Through an interpreter, the man, who said his name was Abu Youssef, told the soldiers that this was his home and he wanted to return.

"Joe, tell him we aren't leaving until the area is safe," Bowen told his interpreter.

The man looked confused. He'd split his family among three homes just before the fighting began March 25.

"Will you leave tomorrow?" he asked.

"My daughters are in school; they need to study; can I get their books?" he said. The soldiers asked the interpreter, nicknamed "Joe," to go through the house and give Abu Youssef books. Joe handed them over in a plastic bag through a crack in the door, barring the man from his home.

"Please watch the cigarettes," Abu Youssef said, referring to his little store, which the Americans called Wal-Mart. "I have no money."

He returned one more time and asked to take the cigarettes to sell and support his family until he could come home.

"Tell him to stop coming here," Bowen said.

Bowen said he didn't feel bad for seizing Abu Youssef's home. "They have the power to stop this shit and no one does. The power is in the people; it's always been with the people, but no one wants to stand up."

"I'd blow up half my house to get back inside," said Cpl. David Morelock of Greeneville, Tenn.

Spc. Brodie Berkenbile, 20, of Athens, Tenn., said he'd fire a sniper rifle at people from his rooftop if a foreign army took over. But this is different.

"We're trying to help them," he said.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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