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U.S. outposts face stiff challenges in Baghdad neighborhoods

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Call it a Baghdad housewarming.

In the week since the soldiers of the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment from Fort Riley, Kan., moved into an abandoned seminary in southern Baghdad's volatile Mekanik neighborhood, they've been peppered with small-arms fire, three mortar attacks and a rocket-propelled grenade.

The grenade was launched from 150 yards away and hit the windshield of a parked Humvee, but it didn't detonate. An Army sniper equipped with a .240-caliber machine gun had a clear bead on the attacker but didn't pull the trigger because there was a gaggle of children around.

The challenges of neighborhoods like Mekanik are at the heart of the new U.S. military strategy, which aims to insert American troops into the heart of the sectarian violence in Baghdad.

As part of the two-month-old security crackdown in the capital, the U.S. military is moving combat troops out of fortress-like forward operating bases where they've lived since the war began and into smaller neighborhood outposts throughout the city.

Twenty-two such outposts have been established, with more on the way. From their new homes the troops are expected to conduct more frequent patrols, forge relationships with residents and improve intelligence gathering.

It's a textbook counterinsurgency tactic, one American commanders acknowledge they should've employed earlier. But four years into the war, with sectarian divisions hardening in neighborhoods across Baghdad, placing U.S. troops closer to the roots of the violence represents a major military gamble.

"Three hundred meters away and we're in the `hood. We know they're going to test us," said Maj. Craig Manville of Springfield, Mo., deputy commander of the Fort Riley squadron, part of the 4th Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division.

The squadron arrived in February under President Bush's troop increase and assumed responsibility for a section of southern Baghdad below the Tigris River. It didn't take long to recognize the trouble spot: On a map of their section charting incidents of violence—corpses, roadside bombs, threats against residents—Mekanik looks like a pincushion.

To the north lies the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Dora, to the south the Shiite enclave of Abu Disheer. Iraqi military officials say that the Shiite militants of the Mahdi Army and the al-Qaida-linked Sunni extremists of the Omar Brigade—two of Baghdad's most fearsome militias—are wrestling for control of the area. Days before the Americans arrived, Shiites blew up a Sunni mosque when they knew no one was inside.

Until now, soldiers based a couple of miles away at massive Forward Operating Base Falcon rarely lingered here. Most residents have fled. Shops are boarded shut, and uncollected trash lines the streets.

When the troops from Fort Riley came upon the two-story brick seminary while on patrol, it appeared to have been abandoned hastily, with reading glasses and half-empty soda cans still sitting atop desks. No one turned up for several days, and the soldiers commandeered the building.

The outpost "allows us to project patrols from right here in the neighborhood," said the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jim Crider, of Hopkinsville, Ky. "Having American forces here is the best security the people of this neighborhood could hope for."

Working with Iraqi forces, they've already made one score—a cache of weapons hidden in a Shiite mosque a few blocks from the outpost. Iraqi security officials said that the American presence has encouraged some families to return home.

But while American commanders liken the outposts to neighborhood police precincts, they can hardly respond to every threat.

The U.S. military strategy still depends on training and bolstering Iraqi forces. In addition to the 22 outposts, 31 U.S.-Iraqi police command centers known as joint security stations also have been opened under the Baghdad crackdown.

On that score, Mekanik lags behind. While some combat outposts will be staffed jointly by U.S. and Iraqi forces, Combat Outpost "Amanche" will be American-only for now. Militias have heavily infiltrated the local forces, and while U.S. soldiers conduct patrols with the Iraqis and praise their commanders, they keep the rank-and-file at arm's length.

"For the most part we don't tell them where we're going and what we're going to do until we do it—and only after we take away their cell phones," Crider said.

On a recent afternoon, when his men set off on foot in the neighborhood—trailed by a phalanx of Humvees—they heard the same sentiment from residents.

"You know as well as I do that the Iraqi forces have lots of problems," complained Saba Abdullah, 40, who lives across the street from the outpost. "But we are very happy you are here. We really hope you will secure this place."

The men living here have abandoned many of the comforts of the forward operating base, including hot showers, all-you-can-eat buffet meals and flush toilets. But with a kitchen, a chapel, space to spread out their cots and an entertainment room with a flat-screen TV, the seminary is much nicer than the dank Baghdad buildings that house most of the new American outposts.

"This is the Taj Mahal of COPs," or combat outposts, said Capt. Nick Cook of Lansing, Mich., leader of the squadron's A company, nicknamed Apache.

Engineers are expected to install chemical latrines within a few weeks. A concrete wall has been erected around the perimeter, and the satellite communications system is up and running. Some 200 troops are ready to call this place home for the year or longer that they'll be deployed in Iraq.

"By being here we're mentally focused," said Capt. Scott Smith of Tell City, Ind., leader of the C company, nicknamed Comanche. "We're not worried about going back and getting chow like we would be on the base. We're 24/7 focused. Our goal is to become like members of the community."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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