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`Wolf Pack' polices hostile streets of Iraqi town

RAMADI, Iraq—Some call them "Miami Vice." They call themselves the Wolf Pack.

They are Alpha Company, 124th Infantry, Army National Guard, with some reinforcements from Delta Company. They come from Florida and Puerto Rico and Jamaica and Haiti and the Dominican Republic. A lifetime ago they were weekend warriors, but they are anything but that now.

Today they are the law in the hot, dusty streets of this hostile town an hour's drive east of Baghdad, the town the fugitive dictator Saddam Hussein praised as the "jewel in the crown" of stubborn bloody resistance to the Americans.

Their commander, Capt. Richard Rouig of Hollywood, Fla., used to be a code enforcement officer for Dade County, Fla. Today he and his 124 men enforce a different code in Al-Ramadi. They have lost six men wounded in their seven months at war in Iraq.

At first they were attached to a special-operations unit and trained for a weapons recovery mission in a secret location. Then that special-operations force shifted to another mission and left the 124th Infantry to make its own way to Baghdad. Once in Baghdad they were assigned to back-breaking duty hauling out hundreds of tons of deadly weapons and munitions strewn across the Iraqi capital.

Now they police the bleeding edge of Ramadi. They are lean and mean in the 125-degree heat, patrolling the streets by night and trying to catch a few zzz's by day in what was once a livestock-holding area near one of the late Odai Hussein's palaces. The searing heat and rumbling trucks make that hard to do.

James Warren, known as "Sgt. Dickie," works in Lou's tattoo shop in Miami. Here, he's trying to punch holes in Fedayeen fighters. This company is the typical Guard unit hodgepodge of intellectuals, industrialists, bankers and cops. They share the bond of the soldier, and another thing—Florida.

"Nothing bad about Florida," says Jason DeSousa, fresh out of boot camp and on his first deployment. "Anybody says something negative about Miami, man, they get whipped."

Col. Hector Mirabiles, commander of the Wolf Pack's parent 1st Battalion, could not be prouder of this bunch; even Army veterans say they're a crack combat unit.

The soldiers living in the stable and the tents around it see daily combat, nightly raids and endless patrols as they try to maintain some sort of law and order in this contested region. They get and return fire, know the sound of incoming mortars too well and lately have been learning about deadly "IEDs"—improvised explosive devices.

Attacks on U.S. soldiers claim casualties at a steady clip, and the mortars that bang away at the American bases in Ramadi and Fallujah have not abated. The Wolf Pack answers each attack in a way that minimizes civilian involvement and gives the enemy a dose of Miami street justice.

A checkpoint nets C-4 plastic explosives, AK-47 assault rifles and grenades. A hotel raid, set up in three hours after an informant tipped them about a Syrian with al-Qaida connections, picks up a detainee who provides another piece in the puzzle.

The Syrian was building the deadly IEDs and showing others in Ramadi how to do it. He was taken down by the 124th in a night raid in one of the city's nastiest neighborhoods without a shot fired. This time the intelligence was good.

The Wolf Pack has not always been that lucky.

On the night of June 13th, they approached the gates of a house they wanted to search for a reported weapons cache. When Rouig arrived with his unit, the welcome mat was already out—they were met with fire from all directions. The ambush cost the company the six wounded men.

Soldiers doing dangerous checkpoint duty live on the edge of fear and caution and that can breed quick, aggressive responses. Yet at each briefing, the brass reminds them that the vast majority who approach them are innocent civilians, caught in the middle of a nasty struggle.

The average Iraqi at a checkpoint is hot, frustrated, confused, doesn't understand the English commands, and the troops don't have the benefit of a translator. Spec. Carlos Ojeda is sympathetic. "How you treat them in the day is how they will treat us in the night," he says.

One nightly briefing included a "correction" in the Arabic commands being taught to soldiers. Apparently, the command to "get out of here" that they had been using was derogatory and demeaning. But it wasn't until a government-contract translator overheard it and brought it to their attention that the soldiers got a better phrase to use. Now, at least, curious children are not being sworn at when they approach for candy or attention.

Mirabiles has the tough job of trying to integrate the intelligence and "heart-and-minds" war with the street war. Some of his week is spent schmoozing with the local sheiks, another initiative that Rouig and the 124th Wolf Pack brought to the scene.

One night, a Wolf Pack patrol encountered a heavily defended house, with guards and guns and generators. A tense standoff ensued at the gate. The occupants recognized the soldiers and did not fire, but the gates remained closed.

Before the situation escalated, an English-speaking sheik emerged, and some differences were resolved. The Americans wanted to check the house for things that would do them harm. The Iraqis wanted to keep their guns to protect their sheik from "harami" (thieves) and political rivals. Each of the 23 area sheiks have their own guards in the absence of a functioning police force.

From a tense standoff came an invitation to dinner. After the troops ate lamb, chicken and rice, they moved back to patrol. Later, a meeting involving the sheik was hosted by the American command, in hope of gaining some cooperation in fighting the increasingly sophisticated guerrilla war. The sheik promised to help, insisting that the resistance was from the outside, not from their citizens.

Rouig pores over the pieces of artillery shells and large bombs circled in fuzzy pictures found in a house that also contained a Russian sniper rifle and a recently manufactured Russian shoulder-mounted anti-tank weapon. He's trying to figure out the mechanics of the potent command-detonated roadside bombs aimed at American convoys—and he is sure the Syrian detainee, the bomb maker, has some answers.

The daily grind is taking its toll on the Wolf Pack. No air conditioning, little sleep, dangerous missions, and no certain date for a return home are facts of life. Soldiers gripe, but qualify their pain. "We're here to finish," says one. On their wish lists: To return to their lives at home, back at the Home Depot or the tattoo parlor. Back to their wives and kids. Back to Florida. Back to Puerto Rico.

A soldier gets word that his pregnant wife was in a car accident. He longs for more information, but phones are hard to come by. They are available for calls home only during the few daylight hours when Wolf Pack sleeps, and no one can afford less rest than he's getting.

Divorces, birthdays, home foreclosures, leaking roofs, sewer backups, grandma's illness, life at home goes on without them. Some wonder if Florida Gov. Jeb Bush even knows where they are.

A satirical comment board provides a forum for the running joke: When are we going home? Answers range from comments about finding Jimmy Hoffa to when pigs learn to fly. Laughter eases the pain.

It is harder to ease the private pain. When a soldier waits hours in line to call home and another man answers the phone, that's a wound no medic can fix.

During a recent mortar attack, Rouig ordered everybody indoors. His command center has a laptop, and a young soldier taking shelter from the mortars got a rare opportunity to access his e-mail. While two explosions rocked the night sky, and the command scrambled to locate the source and get permission to return fire, the soldier opened the "Dear John" e-mail letter from his girlfriend that he had feared was coming.

Sgt. Dickie, the tattoo artist, tried his hand as a counselor, sitting with the jilted soldier in a jeep, talking about war, women and the meaning of it all. As the sun crept up, both agreed that the folks at home could never understand life out here.

The soldier kicked the dirt, spun in alternating circles of logic and rage, while Sgt Dickie waited for a chance to apply his only psychological tourniquet: "At the bottom of it all, and it's always been this way, soldiers have only themselves to believe in out here. You've learned this. Now it's time you believe it inside."

Or in the words of a recent Vietnam War movie: Learn to depend on each other because out here, each other is all we've got.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-WOLFPACK

Iraq

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