South of Baghdad, U.S. troops find fatigue, frustration

An Iraqi detainee sits quietly, blindfolded and hands bound, while soldiers search a house during a late-night mission.
An Iraqi detainee sits quietly, blindfolded and hands bound, while soldiers search a house during a late-night mission. Chris Collins/Fresno Bee

SOUTHEAST OF SALMAN PAK, Iraq — Standing in a small room in the Iraqi home they'd raided an hour earlier, a dozen soldiers from the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division were trading jokes when 1st Sgt. Troy Moore, Company A's senior enlisted man, shouted out.

"We're bringing democracy to Iraq," he called, with obvious sarcasm, as a reporter entered the room. Then Moore began loudly humming the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Within seconds the rest of the troops had joined in, filling the small, barren home in the middle of Iraq with the patriotic chorus of a Civil War-era ballad.

U.S. officials say that security has improved since the Sledgehammer Brigade, as the 3rd Brigade is called, arrived five months ago as part of the 30,000-strong buildup of additional U.S. troops to Iraq and took control of an area 30 miles southeast of Baghdad. The brigade, with 3,800 soldiers, has eight times the number of troops that were in the area before.

Although the soldiers who since spring have walked and ridden through this volatile area mixed with Sunni and Shiite Muslims have seen some signs of progress, they still face the daily threat of roadside bombs, an unreliable Iraqi police force, the limitations of depending on Iraqis for tips and the ever-elusive enemy.

"Even though we've out-stayed our welcome, in the big picture of whether we've helped or not, I know we have," said Sgt. Christofer Kitto, a 23-year-old sniper from Altamont, N.Y. "But now it's just in a state of quagmire. The U.S. time here has come and gone."

On this night, the troops had been ferried by helicopter to a rural enclave abutting the Tigris River. Their mission: Uproot a suspected nest of Sunni insurgents.

But the soldiers found only a small cache of weapons outside one of the 13 houses they searched. They detained one man who identified himself with a name that didn't match his government-issued ID, earning him a noisy, expletive-laden interrogation that was easily overheard in the next room.

"Keep your head down! Keep your (expletive) head down!" the interrogator yelled in English as an interpreter translated. "Why are you speaking if you're lying? You better think about what you're saying before you talk to me, son. I've got a real short temper tonight!"

Another Iraqi man who lived in the house also was questioned, though he wasn't detained. What did he know about Sunni insurgents living in the area, asked Staff Sgt. Kenneth Braxton, who's from Philadelphia. Nothing, the man said. Braxton said he knew the man was lying because of the way he moved his eyes. The sergeant tore an American flag Velcro patch from his sleeve and told the Iraqi to hold it to his chest. Then another soldier used a digital camera to take a picture of the man.

"So we've got a picture of you holding an American flag now," Braxton said. He told the man that if he didn't cooperate, the photo would be posted around the neighborhood.

It the end, it didn't appear that the soldiers gleaned any helpful information from the man. The military didn't say what happened to the detainee. A few hours later, the soldiers returned to Command Outpost Cleary, weary and disappointed.

The 3rd Brigade, based at Fort Benning, Ga., arrived here in March and quickly pieced together four bare-essentials outposts, including Cleary, within striking distance of the region's towns and from which raids are launched.

The rest of their time is spent at Forward Operating Base Hammer, a sprawling military base 30 miles east of Baghdad where dust devils spin across the layered sand. The troops live in 12-person tents bordered by 3-foot-tall sandbag barriers.

Col. Wayne Grigsby, of Prince George's County, Md., the brigade's commander, ticks off his troops' accomplishments since June: 86 "knuckleheads" killed and 186 detained; 50 homemade bombs disarmed and 21 weapons caches discovered; 100 boats — used by Sunnis to transport weapons up the Tigris to Baghdad — destroyed.

"People ask me is the surge working, I say, 'How can it not work?' You've got eight companies sitting in a place where there was one company before," he said.

After months of interacting daily with municipal governments and providing economic relief, the military has begun to earn Iraqis' trust, he said. Now tips about suspected insurgents come in regularly from townspeople.

Grigsby keeps the entryway to his office decorated with red, white and blue balloons and a sign that reads: "Git 'R Done!" Beside his desk stands a metal rocket launcher that his troops recovered from an insurgent safe house last month. Insurgents used the launcher and others like it to fire a hail of rockets at FOB Hammer on July 11, killing one soldier. It's an odd piece of memorabilia, a constant reminder of how aggressive and resourceful the enemy can be.

Grigsby is optimistic about his troops' work, but he also knows that they're going home in less than nine months and that the effort will have been for naught if the Iraqis don't pick up the slack. So far, Iraqi police don't patrol any part of the region without the military's help.

In late June, the 3rd Brigade turned over control of an abandoned Pepsi factory in Salman Pak — the largest city in the region — to Iraqi police so they could use it as a checkpoint and patrol base. Three hours after U.S. forces left, insurgents swarmed the factory in broad daylight and took control.

"The surge isn't going on forever, so who's going to take our place?" Grigsby asked. "The key is the Iraqi security forces; that is the key. We've worked our butts off up here and lost some great soldiers. At some point, they've got to bring it so they can live in a peaceful nation."

Staff Sgt. Bobby Dorsey, who's based in Command Outpost Cleary and is from Norman Park, Ga., said Iraqi police increasingly were handling problems themselves instead of calling on U.S. troops for help. But he wonders how long it will take for them to become completely independent.

"It's a slow process when you're trying to help develop a police force and government that's self-sustaining," said Dorsey, 26. "It's going to take a little longer. I don't know how long (U.S. troops) will be here. It could be one week, it could be 10 years."

Meanwhile, Dorsey and other soldiers continue to put their lives at risk.

During a seven-Humvee convoy trip from FOB Hammer to Command Outpost Cleary, Spc. Christopher Shelly, from Austell, Ga., manned the seventh Humvee's gun. He kept a wary eye on his surroundings.

"You see those two light poles over there; there's a pile of dirt between them," he said over the Humvee's communications system. Every bump, mound or piece of debris could mean an explosively formed projectile, designed to pierce Humvees' armor.

Shelly decided that the pile of dirt wasn't a danger — "It's probably too far off from the road" — but his caution shows how wary troops are of the roadside bombs.

Maj. Joe Sowers, a public affairs officer from Richmond, Ind., said that during his first tour in 2004, "there was no such thing" as EFPs, which the U.S. military says that the Iranian military supplies.

"Us and the insurgents have grown together," Sowers said. "It's a deadly little dance we're doing, and they're improving."

It's not just the roadside bombs that kill.

Standing in FOB Hammer's conference room, Sowers pointed to a wall with framed photos of 19 soldiers from the 3rd Brigade who've been killed in action. He ticked off the way they died: "I was on this patrol. It was an EFP," Sowers said, pointing to one of the photos. "This one was small-arms fire. This one was a crush-wire IED (improvised explosive device). This one was a rocket. This one was a sniper."

A blog on the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team is at http:\\

(Collins reports for The Fresno Bee.)