KUT, Iraq—One year after invading Iraq, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jorge Velez was meant to be heading home Sunday from Baghdad. Instead, the platoon sergeant was smack in the center of this restive Shiite heartland Saturday, kicking in doors and staging raids as Killer Troop hunted down supporters of America's newest Iraqi enemy, Muqtada Sadr.
About 600 U.S. 1st Armored Division forces rushed into town on Thursday, Velez among them, two days after allied Ukrainian troops abandoned it to about 500 of Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen. By nightfall the Americans were in their fiercest combat in months—withering rounds of rocket-propelled-grenades and Kalashnikov assault fire that wounded three soldiers and tied them down for hours as they fought across a bridge over the Tigris River to reach this city of 250,000.
At 1 a.m. Sunday Iraqi time, Brigade Commander Col. Rob Baker declared that U.S. forces had broken the back of the Madhi Army in Kut and U.S. troops were in command. "They're no longer an organized resistance," he said, describing three days of combined air, armor and ground assaults that "hit them with a sledgehammer and put them in perspective."
The soldiers in Saturday's raid were deadly serious as they searched the empty ruins of an old Baath Party compound for the enemy. But when the work was done, the mood became bitter among the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment—because they had gotten word on the eve of their departure that their one-year tour is delayed, indefinitely.
Tougher fights may lay ahead in the young militant sheik's strongholds in Najaf and Karbala.
"It's hard," said Velez, 30, of Caguas, Puerto Rico. "It's time to go. A year is a long time in Iraq. You're tense all the time."
In the Persian Gulf on Saturday, troops were taking the shrink-wrap off the First Armored Division attack aircraft, which had been packed onto ships before last week's southern Shiite rebellion, to put them back into service.
In short, the troops that had survived a year of deadly roadside bombs and sniping attacks in Baghdad were back in battle again, and they were disappointed.
"Me too. But I'm pretty certain that the soldiers understand their mission here. And they're going to finish the job, finish the fight here," said Brig. Gen. Mike Scaparrotti, who commanded the rapid-reaction force that rushed South as Sadr's militia were overrunning Iraqi police and coalition compounds manned by Ukrainian, Polish, Spanish and other forces across the south last week.
Next come the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala, sacred to Shiite Muslims who for years were suppressed by Saddam Hussein's Sunni minority. U.S. troops mostly cruised there a year ago as they raced to Baghdad to topple the dictator who had sent Shiites to mass graves, ordered the assassinations of their best educated and most respected clerics and drained their marshes in a bid to snuff out any resistance.
Saturday, Sadr's forces were still in charge and more than a million Muslims were in Karbala to circle the shrine for the Prophet Mohammed, who died centuries ago in battle. Coalition forces were at best on the fringes, under commanders' orders to stay away from the weekend pilgrimage.
Saturday night, the army said it was finishing the job in Kut, a city that fell to Marines a year ago and has since been patrolled by Polish and Ukrainian troops, whose separately negotiated rules of engagement meant they were here not as combatants, but as peacekeepers.
In three days of combat, commanders took Kut and killed, captured or wounded 230 of an estimated 400-500 Mahdi army militiamen who had taken charge of the city by overrunning the coalition compound and stations for the newly trained Iraqi police.
Baker said there were still Mahdi Army remnants in the city, including leadership, "but they don't have the ability to organize and conduct operations from a military standpoint."
Aircraft bombed Sadr headquarters and ground forces recaptured the local TV station and coalition offices, which about 1,100 Ukrainian troops had abandoned Tuesday when black-clad gunmen over-ran it.
"Motivation is down," says Velez. "We came here and did our jobs. Why can't other guys come and do their jobs, too?"
On an inspection tour Saturday, Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling boasted of the lightning speed at which his veteran troops had swept into battle, suggesting that Kut might be a turning point in the campaign to pacify Iraq, perhaps on the scale of Little Round Top at Gettysburg.
Between firefights, the troops were outside a mobile PX, grumbling that they were back south, where they had begun. They were buying supplies to replace those already shipped home or left behind in Baghdad when they dashed south on short notice to bail out their coalition allies.
Ruefully, Hertling said it might be harder for the First Armored Division to face their spouses than the Sadr forces. "The hardest part of this is not beating the enemy; the hardest part is letting families know that we're going to stay a bit longer."
Velez eyed a dusty Kut street for snipers, then sighed that he was leaving it to his wife to break the sad news to his daughter, 3, and son, 8. "To me it's like breaking his heart, and breaking my heart. So I'm going to let my wife do it. I gotta stay focused."
On March 26, the troops packed personal goods—a year's worth of cards and letters, photos and souvenirs—and mailed them home in preparation to turn over their watch to fresh forces. Velez returned the gift his wife had sent him for his birthday—a battery-operated foot massager, in the mistaken belief that his foot patrols were over. Soldiers booked cruises and plane tickets and planned holidays.
Specialist Everett Colby, 20, of Cooper City, Fla., a BlackHawk helicopter crew chief, plunked down several thousand dollars on non-refundable airline tickets—before someone broke the news that the Sadr forces would make him miss his June 25 stateside wedding.
"If you interviewed me on the day they told me, I was just shocked," said Colby. "This is horrible. I don't like this place," he said, adding that there was one small point of consolation. His fiancee had already left Baghdad for Germany, but she was being recalled along with other 1st Armored Division soldiers.
So they would marry in June anyway. In Iraq.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.