Kevin Sites  /  NBC News
Soldier with local kids just outside of the Forward Operating Base Eagle, Sadr City, Iraq.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/2/2004 7:02:12 AM ET 2004-07-02T11:02:12

At 37, Spc. Eric Herron is one of the oldest men in his company — something he’s not allowed to forget by his younger colleagues. He's also notorious for something few joke about at Forward Operating Base Eagle — he's become an unwitting target for mortar attacks.

Only about three city blocks east of the teeming Shiite slums of Sadr City, the base, nicknamed “Dirty Bird,” has been mortared more than any other in Iraq — 400 times in the last three months.

Under that rain of steel, as the soldiers here refer to it, Herron is considered a mortar magnet.

Mortars fired by Shiite militia, mostly 60- or 82-millimeter, have narrowly missed killing him at least half a dozen times, including one day when he survived three very close calls.

In May, two rounds fell next to the Humvee he had just parked and exited — peppering it with shrapnel — including the still-warm driver’s seat where he had been sitting.

“It was close enough for me to hear that bumble bee buzz when shrapnel whizzes by you,” Herron said.

He was headed to another location when he stopped to talk with a colleague. A third mortar round dropped nearby. He was shocked to see where it landed — right where he had been going.

Later in the afternoon a fourth round fell nearby while he was standing outside his barracks door.

“I decided to spend the rest of the day inside,” Herron said dryly.

Mortar target
Herron isn’t alone in his experiences. When 400 mortars land in and around a base only about a square kilometer in size, nearly everyone has a story — and remarkably, they’ve all lived to tell about.

However there have been injuries, the most serious happening only a week ago when a barrage of mortars rained in on a large tin-roof maintenance building. One of them pierced the roof and exploded below, injuring seven soldiers. One soldier nearly lost a leg to shrapnel.  Funding for a new reinforced roof was quickly approved following the incident.

“The worst is when the first one hits," Herron said. "Then you know there’s more coming.”

Sgt. Robert Skinner agreed. “You’d almost prefer to get hit by the first one because after that one you really don’t know which way to run.”

Soldiers aren’t the only ones in danger. Civilian employees of Kellogg, Brown and Root, which provides many of the civilian services on base, are also at risk. Many of the food service employees, mostly foreign workers from poor nations like the Philippines, Pakistan and Bangladesh, say they are very frightened by the mortars.

One worker explained how he sleeps on the ground, pulling sandbags around him. While the mortars haven’t gotten him yet, by the looks of the red bites on his arms, the sand fleas have.

Four Philippine workers were killed at the largest Army supply base in Iraq in April when insurgent rockets hit their living quarters at Camp Anaconda.

Urban area surrounding base
But those inside the camp aren’t completely surrounded by hostility. At dusk in Guard Tower 7, soldiers watched Iraqi boys play soccer no more than a hundred yards away. Some Iraqi civilians even live in shacks right next to the massive walls surrounding the base. 

“Hi, Nora,” said one of the soldiers, waving to a shy 10-year-old Iraqi girl popping her head out from behind a sheet that covers the opening to the mud and clapboard shack.

“Hi, Michael,” she said in a high-pitched voice, waving, then quickly ducking back inside.

But inside the tactical operations center on base, the mood isn’t as light. Capt. Steven Price pointed to a mass of green dots on a map where the base is located. They overlap each other like a messy pile of poker chips. Each one represents a mortar attack in June. There are 60 green dots so far.

“It’s frustrating,” said Price, “because we can’t really return fire. The area around us is mostly urban, and the risk of collateral damage is too high.”

What the 1st Cavalry here does do is try to spot the mortar flash — then send out a quick reaction force to find the shooter. But by the time the force gets there, the shooter usually is gone.

“They shoot and scoot,” said Price. “They don’t stay anywhere long enough for us to get to them.”

Price was referring to the Shiite militia associated with Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric whom the coalition tried to arrest for the murder of another cleric. His al-Mahdi Army is made up of mostly of poor and disenfranchised Shiites from 2.5 million people who  live in Sadr City, named after al-Sadr’s slain father.

Al-Sadr’s men were part of the bloody twin insurgent uprisings in April in which Shiites in southern Iraq and Sunnis in Fallujah battled U.S. troops

Sadr, however, switched gears with just a few weeks before the transfer of sovereignty, saying he would support the interim government and was going to form a political party to participate in upcoming elections.

Local Sadr City mosques, often used to mobilize the populace against the coalition, are now telling the people not to attack the U.S. military, Iraqi police or the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.

Perhaps because of that, some of the “steel rain” of April and May has tapered off a bit, but nobody is relaxing yet. 

In fact, even in the blazing 110-degree heat, soldiers here are still under orders to wear their body armor and Kevlar helmet anytime they walk outside the safety of a building.

NBC's Kevin Sites is on assignment in Iraq. More of his observations from Iraq can be found in his blog, kevinsites.net.

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