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Two years after war, U.S. troops stuck in Iraq training local troops

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Sgt. Richard MacDougal glanced around the darkness of a slum alleyway, hoping to catch enemy snipers before their bullets caught him. A hard rain had flooded the sewer system, and MacDougal walked knee-deep in black water that stank of feces. He gave the Iraqi soldiers walking alongside him a wary look.

His patrol was making its way through Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhood, the warren of alleys, junkyards and apartment buildings around Haifa Street.

A crescent moon offered just enough light to cast eerie shadows across the stinking water, creating illusions of movement that kept MacDougal and his men jerking their M-16 and M-4 rifles from one side to the other.

A face appeared around a corner and disappeared, the hallmark of an insurgent scout.

"We've got a peeker," one soldier yelled.

MacDougal motioned to the men around him, and they ran splashing toward the corner. There was a crack and a bang—a bullet whizzing over their heads.

Things were different two years ago, when MacDougal was on his first tour in Iraq. He was part of the U.S.-led invasion force that swept into the country on March 19, 2003, and his 3rd Infantry Division took Baghdad in a "Thunder Run" that made headlines across the world.

Women had walked out into the streets of Baghdad and offered tea to MacDougal and his men. Children ran alongside the long columns of Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Abrams tanks. They cheered and chanted for America.

That was then.

"During the first week back it was like waking up from a bad dream and finding that you're still dreaming," said MacDougal, 29, of Rochester, N.Y. "The truth is that it's scary. Every day you wonder is this going to be it? It's always on your mind—every step you take, every door you open—what's on the other side?"

The Bush administration had expected a swift military victory followed by a quick transition to an exile-led government that would bring democracy and reconstruction to a nation that had been oppressed for years by a dictator. Instead, widespread looting in Baghdad allowed insurgents to pick weapons depots clean and launch a guerrilla war that continues to this day.


"What I think did leave the door open was that we did not `defeat/destroy' our enemy as we have in the past wars we have fought ... we invited a situation where those elements could melt back into the public and wait us out," said a senior U.S. military official in Baghdad who insisted on anonymity. "Just as we would wait for the right opportunity to engage, so did they."

The minority Sunni Muslim population that had long ruled Iraq was stripped of its power and its privileges. The U.S.-led provisional government disbanded the Iraqi military and purged members of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated Baath Party from the government.

Reconstruction projects fell by the wayside; 3rd Infantry Division soldiers today point to still-wrecked buildings where they had firefights two years ago. In Haifa and other Sunni enclaves, Sunni insurgents holed up, growing from small groups of gunmen to more sophisticated networks of fighters that came to include foreign Islamic extremists, criminal gangs and Saddam loyalists. After simple AK-47 rifle fire came mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, car bombs, sniper teams and an intimidation campaign of kidnappings and beheadings.

"When we talk about the differences between then and now, you used to know who the enemy was," said Maj. Alayne Conway of the 3rd Infantry. "The threat changed."

Hopes for withdrawing American troops rest on Iraqi army units such as the one the 3rd Infantry is advising—the 302nd battalion, regarded as one of the best in the country. It has primary control and Americans act mainly as advisers.

Yet American soldiers in Baghdad are trying to build a professional force of Iraqi troops who speak a language they don't understand, sometimes have scores to settle and often think of themselves as Sunni or Shiite Muslims first and Iraqis second.

The area around Haifa Street is predominantly Sunni. Most of the Iraqi troops who patrol the area, however, are Shiite. Saddam, a Sunni, viciously oppressed the Shiites, and they're now frequent targets of the Sunni-led insurgency. Thousands have been killed by car bombs and assassinations.


Last week, insurgents pulled two men out of their cars in the middle of the road in Haifa and shot them in the head. Residents say followers of the radical Sunni Wahhabi sect kill Shiites and ethnic Kurds in the area indiscriminately.

At least 15 Iraqi army families have been forced to move onto Forward Operating Base Independence, which is shared by Iraqi and American soldiers.

"Because I participated in the capture of a very important suspect, they threatened my family, my father and my mother," said 1st Lt. Raad Abed Jassim, a Shiite who moved his wife and children to the base. Jassim turned his eyes down as he explained that his father had disowned him, mostly to protect the rest of the family.

When Iraqi and American soldiers detained a suspected Sunni insurgent in Haifa this week, a group of the Shiite troops crowded around him. A sergeant kicked him in the face. Another soldier grabbed him by the neck and slammed his head into a wall. A third slapped him hard in the face.

Ali Abdul Mohsen, a 22-year-old Shiite, pointed his AK-47 at the man and screamed, his eyes bulging, "You will confess or I swear to God I will shoot you here." Most of the Iraqi soldiers nearby smiled in approval. "This is revenge for everyone who has been killed," Mohsen said.

An American soldier looked over and saw what was happening. "Hey, tell them to knock that s--- off," he yelled.

The interpreter nodded that he would. Then he shouted in Arabic at the detainee, "If you come with us, we will slaughter you."

The detainee, wearing only underwear and a T-shirt, shivered in the cold. Blood streamed down the back of his head. He denied having anything to do with the weapons cache across the street from his home.

While informants gave convincing testament that the detainee that night was an insurgent, it isn't always clear-cut, said Capt. Edward Ballanco, 30, of Savannah, Ga., who heads a 3rd Infantry team that's advising the Iraqi army.

"The problem is that some of the guys in power are carrying out family vendettas," Ballanco said. "We think they're arresting people from competing families."

Despite those concerns, Ballanco's men have come to trust the Iraqi troops and to rely on them to be their guides in Haifa.

The Iraqi police refuse to patrol the area. Crossing a road in the neighborhood, on the advice of Iraqi troops, can mean the difference between walking past men who sit at cafes and wave as they sip tea and play dominoes and having to dash for cover as grenades come flying from the other side of a wall. American soldiers name alleyways for what happens between their crumbling brick walls, such as Purple Heart Lane and Grenade Alley.

Though the neighborhood isn't as bad as it was last year, when insurgents roamed freely, it's still too dangerous to patrol the main boulevard for which the Haifa Street area is named.

"We don't bring vehicles on Haifa Street anymore because their RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) would devastate one of our Humvees or one of the pickup trucks the Iraqis run around in," Ballanco said.

On a patrol this week, a group of American soldiers walked down Blacksmith Alley in the middle of an Iraqi platoon. A barrage of gunfire erupted.

Sgt. Ryan Frodge turned to Staff Sgt. Pete Peters and yelled, "What are those motherf------doing?"

Peters, 31, of South Portland, Maine, yelled back, "I have no f------ clue."

Frodge, 25, of Attica, Ind., cursed under his breath.

One of the Iraqi soldiers ran up and said, "There's a sniper in the window." He pointed toward a cluster of tall buildings nearby.

A couple of bullets streaked by.

"You see that satellite dish? He's up there with a mobile phone and a sniper's rifle," said Capt. Hussein al Qaisi, a company commander.

Peters pulled out his map, and al Qaisi pointed to the high-rise apartment building—"Hotel Two"—and said his men already were moving to seal it off. But the sniper, who'd seen the troops coming, scrambled away.

Later, after walking past the mosque that flicks off its lights to signal that patrols are in the area and the house that sends up a flock of white pigeons to do the same, Peters shook his head in frustration.

"It's not my first time to Baghdad," he said. "And it probably won't be my last."

Some American soldiers had planned to be elsewhere.

"I didn't think I'd be back," said Sgt. Matthew Horton, 22, of Lyons, N.Y. Horton's Humvee was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade on the last mission of his tour in 2003. He has 20 shrapnel wounds to his arms and back, and he saw a friend lose both arms.

Horton was supposed to leave the Army in January, but he was "stop-lossed," an increasingly frequent procedure that compels troops to remain in the ranks after their enlistments are up.

In Horton's case, that means 12 to 14 months in Haifa.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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


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