SAMARRA, Iraq—The gunfight by the Tigris River was over. It was time to retrieve the bodies.
Staff Sgt. Cortez Powell looked at the shredded jaw of a dead man whom he'd shot in the face when insurgents ambushed an American patrol in a blind of reeds. Powell's M4 assault rifle had jammed, so he'd grabbed the pump-action shotgun that he kept slung over his shoulders and pulled the trigger.
Five other soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division scrambled down, pulled two of the insurgents' bodies from the reeds and dragged them through the mud.
"Strap those motherf-----s to the hood like a deer," said Staff Sgt. James Robinson, 25, of Hughes, Ark.
The soldiers heaved the two bodies onto the hood of a Humvee and tied them down with a cord. The dead insurgents' legs and arms flapped in the air as the Humvee rumbled along.
Iraqi families stood in front of the surrounding houses. They watched the corpses ride by and glared at the American soldiers.
Fifteen months earlier, when the 1st Infantry Division sent some 5,000 Iraqi and U.S. soldiers to retake Samarra from Sunni Muslim insurgents, it was a test of the American occupation's ability not only to pacify but also to rebuild a part of Iraq dominated by the country's minority Sunnis.
More than a year later, American troops still are battling insurgents in Samarra. Bloodshed is destroying the city and driving a wedge between the Iraqis who live there and the U.S. troops who are trying to keep order.
Violence, police corruption and the blurry lines of guerrilla warfare are clouding any hopes of victory.
"It's apocalyptic out there. Life has definitely gotten worse for" Iraqis, said Maj. Curtis Strange, 36, of Mobile, Ala., who works with Iraqi troops in Samarra. "You see Samarra and you almost want to build a new city and move all these people there."
Soldiers such as Sgt. Powell desperately want to reach out to the community, but they're mired in daily skirmishes. Residents have fled, and a 7-mile-long, 5-foot-high earthen wall that U.S. soldiers built around the city last August has failed to keep out the insurgents.
Many of the American troops who patrol the city say they don't see much hope for Samarra. Some officers privately worry that the city will fall to insurgents as American troops withdraw.
"Samarra is one example of many towns in Iraq that are barely functioning," said Capt. Ryan Edwards, 31, of Plain City, Ohio, who majored in Middle Eastern studies at West Point. "What the insurgents know is that we lack the will to go after them. It's not the American Army that lacks the will; it's the American people and their leadership."
Most of Iraq, including its Shiite Muslim and Kurdish areas, is relatively free of the kind of violence seen in Samarra. Yet a failure to secure Samarra and other Sunni areas in central and western Iraq—where some 85 percent of the daily insurgent attacks take place—would threaten the unity of the nation and could determine the Bush administration's legacy in Iraq.
The dirt wall that the Americans built around Samarra left three checkpoints where residents can enter after they show identification and submit to searches. After the wall went up, the city's population fell from about 200,000 to about 90,000, according to U.S. military officials.
The wall cut insurgent attacks in Samarra roughly in half, to eight to 10 a day. But they're increasing again. Eight roadside bombs exploded in Samarra in October; at least 15 blew up in January.
The city inside the wall has stretches of buildings crushed by bombs and pocked with bullet holes. Bales of concertina wire litter the landscape, along with piles of concrete rubble that once were walls.
"The textbook answer is to build infrastructure," said Capt. Scott Brannon, who commands Bravo Company, which oversees Samarra. "But what happens with the contracts is that we're funding the AIF," or anti-Iraqi forces—the insurgency.
Brannon, a soft-spoken 34-year-old from Boaz, Ala., continued: "Every new unit that comes in has these tribal sheik meetings where all these sheiks say, yeah, we want to help clean up Samarra; and the new unit is dazed and confused and doesn't know who the bad guys are, and by the time they figure it out it's time to leave."
In the middle of town, in an abandoned schoolhouse, Sgt. Powell, 28, of Columbia, Mo., lives with his fellow soldiers from the 2nd platoon of Bravo Company in the 101st Airborne's storied Rakkasan Brigade. Patrol Base Uvanni is named for Army National Guard Sgt. Michael Uvanni of Rome, N.Y., who was killed in the city on Oct. 1, 2004.
A different name is painted in black on the door to the company's tactical operations center: the Alamo.
The 2nd platoon and two others—about 120 men total—are based at the Alamo and at another base on the edge of town. They replaced three companies from the 3rd Infantry Division that had a total of more than 400 soldiers.
"If they ever figure out that we don't have many guys here we'll be in trouble," said 1st Lt. Dennis Call, who commands the 2nd platoon. "If we're out on patrol with just seven guys, like usual, and we take two casualties we'll get messed up."
The lieutenant writes biblical quotes on the walls and bookshelves of his bedroom, which is a closet connected to the operations center in the Alamo schoolhouse. He has a goofy grin, and his sergeants tousle his sandy-brown hair as though he were a favorite uncle.
Scrawled on a dry-erase board is a verse from Galations 6:9: "And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not."
"Being in Iraq is like my time in the wilderness," said Call, 31, who's from Albuquerque, N.M.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Call sprinted through Samarra, sweat pouring down his face, heart pounding.
A rocket-propelled grenade had slammed into the wall of a 2nd platoon observation post, sending chunks of concrete flying into the air and his men diving for cover. Call was chasing one of the insurgents who had fled.
Call and three other soldiers dashed into a house, mud flying from their combat boots, radios squawking. The women inside shrieked. A man moved from a hallway to the living room, almost a shadow in the dimly lit house. Call jerked his M4 assault rifle back and forth, his finger on the trigger.
He ran down an alley, through another house and into the street.
The insurgent was gone.
The soldiers began walking toward a Humvee parked a block away.
Specialist Patrick McHenry sat behind the Humvee's .50-caliber machine gun, scanning the area. He heard a ping, looked up and saw a grenade come flying over a wall.
"Frag," McHenry screamed. "Frag!"
Call glanced at what looked like a piece of fruit rolling toward him and his men. They dashed toward a courtyard. The explosion seemed to stop time for a second. Shrapnel cut into the walls around them.
The soldiers patted their bodies to make sure everything was still there.
McHenry, 23, of Jamestown, Pa., ran up. "It came from right over that ... wall," he reported.
The men ran along the wall and stopped at a metal gate where they could see inside.
"It's an IP (Iraqi police) station!" Call said.
Powell blasted the padlock with his shotgun. The American soldiers screamed at the police inside to drop their weapons.
The police substation was attached to Samarra General Hospital, and the soldiers questioned doctors and policemen alike, swabbing their hands, looking for explosives residue.
There was no sign of the grenade thrower.
The men of the 2nd platoon were furious. Many of them suspected that the police may have been behind the attack.
Distrust of the Iraqi police in Samarra runs deep among U.S. troops.
Last month, 33 police recruits from Samarra were killed when gunmen ambushed their bus and shot them in the head, execution-style.
Most Iraqis assumed that Sunni insurgents had killed the men as a warning to anyone else who might be considering joining the security forces.
But Brannon, the Bravo Company commander, suspects that the killings were an inside job by police officials vying for control of which tribes supply recruits.
"I would not put it past them that someone in the IP leaked where that bus was going to be," he said. "There's a lot of politics here."
The Iraqi soldiers in the area are no better, Brannon said. U.S. military officials suspect that many of them, including a company commander, are on the insurgents' payrolls. Iraqi soldiers were removed from the city's checkpoints last month after intelligence reports said that the most wanted terrorist in the country, al-Qaida ally Abu Musab al Zarqawi, gave Iraqi soldiers $7,000 after they let him enter the city to broker an arms deal.
The 101st Airborne plans to hand over the town to the Iraqi police and army by July 1.
One afternoon, Lt. Call and his men were planning an afternoon "hearts and minds" foot patrol to hand out soccer balls to local kids.
As Call sat in the schoolhouse, preparing to go out, he heard two loud bursts from the .50-caliber machine gun on the roof.
Specialist Michael Pena, a beefy 21-year-old from Port Isabel, Texas, had opened fire. Boom-boom-boom. Boom-boom-boom.
Call and his men dashed out the front door. Pena had shot an unarmed Iraqi man on the street. The man had walked past the signs that mark the 200-yard "disable zone" that surrounds the Alamo and into the 100-yard "kill zone" around the base. The Army had forced the residents of the block to leave the houses last year to create the security perimeter.
American units in Iraq usually fire warning shots. The Rakkasans don't.
A few days later, Call said his brigade command had told him, "The Rakkasans don't do warning shots." A warning shot in the vernacular of the Rakkasans, Call said, was a bullet that hit one Iraqi man while others could see.
"That's how you warn his buddy, is to pop him in the face with a kill shot?" Call said incredulously. "But what about when his buddy comes back with another guy ... that and the other 15 guys in his family who you've made terrorists?"
Looking at the man splayed on the ground, Call turned to his medic, Specialist Patrick McCreery, and asked, "What the f--- was he doing?"
McCreery didn't answer. The man's internal organs were hanging out of his side, and his blood was pouring across the ground. He was conscious and groaning. His eyelids hung halfway closed.
"What ... did they shoot him with?" McCreery asked, sweat beginning to show on his brow. "Did someone call a ... ambulance?"
The call to prayer was starting at a mosque down the street. The words "Allahu Akbar"—God is great—wafted down from a minaret's speakers.
The man looked up at the sky as he heard the words. He repeated the phrase "Ya Allah. Ya Allah. Ya Allah." Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.
He looked at McCreery and raised his finger toward the house in front of him.
"This my house," he said in broken English.
McCreery reached down. With his hands cupped, he shoved the man's organs back into his body and held them in place as Call unwrapped a bandage to put around the hole.
"He's fading, he's fading," McCreery shouted.
Looking into the dying man's eyes, the medic said, "Haji, haji, look at me," using the honorific title reserved for older Muslim men who presumably have gone on Hajj—pilgrimage—to Mecca.
"Why? Why?" asked the man, his eyes beginning to close.
"Haji, I don't know," said McCreery, sweat pouring down his face.
An Iraqi ambulance pulled up and the Humvees followed. They followed the man to the hospital they'd raided a few days earlier. The soldiers filed in and watched as the man died.
Call said nothing. McCreery, a 35-year-old former foundry worker from Levering, Mich., walked toward a wall, alone. He looked at the dead man for a moment and wiped tears from his eyes.
A few days later, Call's commander asked him to take pictures of the entrails left by the man Pena had shot, identified as Wissam Abbas, age 31, to document that Abbas was inside the sign warning of deadly force.
McHenry, who was driving, told him, "There's not going to be much left, sir. The dogs will have eaten all of it."
Pena was up on the schoolhouse roof manning the same .50-caliber machine gun. He didn't say a word about the man he'd killed. As he stared at a patch of earth in front of him, at Samarra and its wreckage, he couldn't contain his frustration.
"No one told me why I'm putting my life on the line in Samarra, and you know why they didn't?" Pena asked. "Because there is no f------ reason."
The Army News Service describes the training of Iraqi troops in Samarra at the end of January, at www.military.com/features/0,15240,86327,00.html
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-SAMARRA
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060215 USIRAQ SAMARRA