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Soldiers at Camp Eagle weary of Baghdad slum, Iraqis, mission

FORWARD OPERATING BASE EAGLE, Iraq—There's no shortage of dangerous, austere and just plain miserable military postings in Iraq, but the American soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division bunking at this base just outside Baghdad's Sadr City slum might have drawn the shortest straw of all.

Since March, insurgents have flung more than 800 mortar rounds at Eagle, turning a walk to the mess tent into a life-and-death proposition. On patrol, the soldiers routinely encounter roadside bombs, small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

The constant combat and bleak camp conditions have pumped up the pride of many. They've seen the worst, and they have the swagger to show for it.

But seven grueling months also have chipped away at the optimism many had when they arrived, lending a jagged edge to their attitudes about Iraqis, the war and the prospects for success.

"I used to want to be nice and friendly with the Iraqis. Now I don't care. I'm all about getting home. I got a wife and baby, and I'm not going to take a chance that someone might be friendly and find out that they're not," said Spc. Jarred Mafouz, who's part of a tank crew.

A truce that was struck over the weekend between militants in Sadr City and the Iraqi government could be good news for Eagle's soldiers. Or it could collapse and lead to still more fighting, as similar cease-fires have.

The Dirty Bird, as Eagle is unaffectionately known, has none of the commodious lounges, movie theaters, bicycle fleets and other amenities that U.S. soldiers enjoy at other camps across Iraq.

"You hear people griping about how the swimming pool isn't working, the chow hall is too small, and I'm like, `We get mortared every night. What are you talking about?'" Pfc. Jeremy Chapman said.

The Dirty Bird convenience store consists of one small, dimly lit room lined with half-empty shelves and bizarre items such as dusty tins of sardines and just four magazine titles that were all, inexplicably, about hair: Bridal Star Hairstyles, Short Cuts, Sophisticated Black Hair and Celebrity Hairstyles.

"Yeah. Pretty depressing," Capt. Matthew Benigni said while giving a visitor a tour. "If you want something, call home. Care packages are very important here."

While troops at other Baghdad installations have been treated to live performances by the likes of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, the only entertainers willing to risk playing at Eagle were the members of ThundHerStruck, "the ultimate all-girl tribute" band to rock group AC/DC.

But it's the pounding of mortar rounds, above all else, that makes Eagle one of the worst.

Virtually everyone has had a close encounter with an incoming explosive. They've killed one soldier and two contractors and injured about 120, all in a 60-acre camp with little more than 1,000 soldiers. About 25 have been seriously injured, many of them losing limbs.

They grumble that the insurgents time their attacks for the breakfast, lunch and dinner hours, forcing the soldiers to don flak jackets and helmets just to get fed. Morning runs are no longer mandatory, given all the shrapnel.

"Everybody's had a close call. I've had about a dozen or so. Everyone's got the same story," said 2nd Lt. Brian Panaro. "Close isn't close anymore unless you're covered in dust."

Mafouz remembers speaking to his wife from the camp's phone center when a particularly fierce mortar attack began. One round hit the building, wounding several soldiers who also were trying to call family and friends.

"My wife's on the phone crying her eyes out. The mortars are landing," Mafouz said. "I'm saying, `Look, I got to go help these guys.'"

Some of the soldiers said they'd become so accustomed to the explosions that they found them comforting.

"They rock you to sleep after a while. Boom. Boom. Boom. You feel the building shake. Like your mother rocking you to sleep," Chapman said.

Chapman, who's been sprayed with tiny bits of shrapnel from a roadside bomb while on patrol, had an equally close call on base when a mortar round landed right outside the company headquarters.

"My bottle of water got a Purple Heart that day," he said.

Given the conditions at Eagle—and the maddening inability to respond to mortar attacks with artillery for fear of hurting civilians—it's little surprise that the soldiers there relish their chances to take the fight to the insurgents' homes, instead of their own.

The day after a big operation in Sadr City, Panaro gleefully described to other soldiers how a speeding tank towing a disabled military vehicle demolished marketplaces, sideswiped cars and crushed houses.

Asked later if the offensives were wearing the enemy down, Panaro shrugged and said, "They're like cockroaches. You kill one and there's three more right behind them."

Several doors down, a smiling Benigni watched a video of a Predator drone wiping out a cluster of insurgents with a Hellfire missile. He replayed it for passers-by.

"We're the tip of the spear, man," he told one of his men as they celebrated and relaxed after the exhausting operation.

Usually, though, the mood is less jubilant. Later that day, Benigni worked to raise the spirits of a young officer, likening the long fight with insurgents to a chess match.

"And they're winning," the young officer replied.

"No, they're not," Benigni said.

"It seems like it, sir. It seems like they're outsmarting us," the young lieutenant said.

The next day, Benigni's company continued the game, rolling outside the camp's gates to meet with local sheiks and visiting schools to survey reconstruction needs. It was a day of diplomacy and some small progress, the kind of work Benigni said he wanted to focus on more.

But when the company returned to Eagle, it had a new assignment, which had nothing to do with reconstruction: Eight hours, beginning at 1 a.m., of watching a long stretch of a crucial road to prevent insurgents from planting any bombs, at least for one night.

Benigni and his Humvee crew shared embarrassing stories and crude jokes and occasionally sang songs to stay awake.

"The soldiers at this camp, they know without a shadow of a doubt that they've been in some serious combat, in some of the worst conditions," Benigni said. "When they get back home they'll be proud of it."

"But," he added, "you won't have any trouble finding people to complain about it now."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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