Pfc. Robyn Houston fires bursts of bullets into the air as his Humvee swerves around a pothole and lurches over a highway median. His convoy bears down on oncoming traffic, forcing Iraqi cars to swerve onto a dirt shoulder.
Roadside bombs "are really bad here!" the vehicle's commander, Staff Sgt. Sean Davis, 30, of Crestview, Fla., shouts over the gunfire and growl of the Humvee. "We're firing warning shots to get them off the road!"
It's a tactic Davis and his platoon resort to daily to avoid deadly explosions in Baiji, a Sunni Arab city long neglected by American forces and still firmly in the grip of insurgents, soldiers here say. In the first month after the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division took over security duties in northern Iraq in late fall, roadside bombs killed or wounded more than a quarter of the 34-man platoon.
Baiji has emerged as a critical priority for the U.S. military because of its importance to Iraq's oil industry, a fact underscored last month when insurgent threats forced officials to shut down the country's biggest oil refinery here, which handles 200,000 barrels a day.
But the city was virtually unknown territory when Davis's platoon -- part of Bulldog Company of the 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment -- and hundreds of other 101st Airborne soldiers were dispatched into the heart of Baiji for the first time last fall, Army officers here say. The knowledge deficit has proven to be deadly.
Like many small cities and towns in Iraq, Baiji, with a population of about 60,000, has long festered as an insurgent haven while U.S. commanders concentrated their limited forces in large cities such as Baghdad and Mosul. Previous American units stayed mostly outside the city, and intelligence was minimal, officers say.
As a result, even these battle-hardened troops from the 101st, many of them veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, have fallen into the pattern of many Army units that suffer high casualties in their first six weeks in Iraq, as insurgents test them in unfamiliar terrain.
This month, Army commanders frustrated by fatalities from bombs, mines, and more recently suicide car bombings began building up sand walls with bulldozers, digging ditches and setting up barricades to sharply restrict entry to the city. They completely sealed off a section of Baiji -- the village of Siniyah -- with a six-mile-long, eight-foot-high berm.
Meanwhile, Davis's platoon resorts to do-it-yourself tactics to try to stay safe. They scour their base for concrete, mixing it with water and pouring it into potholes where insurgents can hide improvised bombs. "I've been trying to find some Quikrete" concrete mix, said Sgt. 1st Class Danny Kidd, 36, of Fulton, N.Y., who like many in his unit is surprised by the intensity of attacks. Other soldiers have mounted shrieking police sirens on their Humvees to clear Iraqi traffic off the roads.
"It's definitely more dangerous this time around," agreed Spec. David Jones, 24, of New York, on his second tour in Iraq with the platoon. "I didn't expect to lose so many friends so soon."
Hostility on the rise
Lying 120 miles north of Baghdad on the Tigris River, Baiji's huge industrial complex rises like a metallic jungle out of a scrub desert landscape. A town with a population that is 98 percent Sunni Muslim, Baiji prospered under Saddam Hussein, who paid favored tribes handsomely to run and protect the oil and electricity infrastructure.
After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, those patronage jobs disappeared, generating hostility against American forces and recruits for the insurgency, Baiji residents say. Heavy-handed sweeps through Baiji by U.S. forces in 2003 and 2004 left many angry, frightened and humiliated, residents say.
"Most of the people fighting the Americans tell me they do nothing for us but destroy the houses and capture people," Adil Faez Jeel, a director at the Baiji refinery, said of the U.S. forces. "There are no jobs, no water, no electricity."
Meanwhile, U.S. military convoys passing Baiji along the main north-south highway from Baghdad to Mosul have killed some residents in hit-and-run accidents, according to local leaders. "A lot of people from my tribe are dead, and I don't know what to say," said Ghaeb Nafoos Hamed Khalaf, leader of the Qaysi tribe, one of the largest in Baiji.
Insurgents have used Baiji as a base for staging attacks on Mosul and Baghdad while skimming funds from the oil trade, U.S officers said. Together with criminal networks, they began profiting by cutting pipelines and trucking oil products to be sold on the black market. "No one makes money when oil flows. They make money when it's disrupted," said Lt. Col. Mike Getchell, an operations officer with the 101st in Tikrit.
In Baiji, the black market for gasoline bustles, with vendors often reappearing within days or hours of being detained by U.S. troops. "They're all over the place," Houston, 20, of Cincinnati, said on a recent patrol through town.
About 150 Iraqi soldiers oversee checkpoints around the city but have failed to stop the attacks. Inside Baiji, the police are ineffective -- they often sleep on night duty, U.S. officers said. The police and army "are fence-sitters -- they don't like the coalition or insurgents, and they're just trying to stay alive," said 1st Lt. Billy Bobbitt, 24, of Woodstown, N.J., an Army intelligence officer in Baiji. "We're already on our second police chief. The other one was going to be fired, but then he got blown up" by a roadside bomb.
‘Almost no support’
U.S. troops have made some headway, recently tracking down a key weapons smuggler and a large cache of munitions. But residents say security in Baiji is far worse than it was under Hussein. Many residents, fearful of insurgent threats, refuse to tell U.S. soldiers who is planting the bombs in their neighborhoods. Insurgents target Iraqis who work for Americans; one man who cleaned toilets at the U.S. base was recently beheaded, Baiji residents and a U.S. officer said.
"When Saddam was in power, we used to go to Mosul, to Tikrit, to Baghdad. . . . It was safer all over," said Salah Aub Ramadan Obaydi, 65, a retired teacher, serving tea and pastries to visiting American soldiers in the curtained sitting room of his east Baiji home. Now "people get shot every day and no one cares."
Outside, on a wall along a trash-strewn street, graffiti declare: "Long live the resistance" and "We're the Baiji heroes, we still resist."
The soldiers go door to door, seeking to identify and photograph all military-aged males as part of a tedious effort to figure out who's who. Iraqis oblige, sometimes grudgingly. No one offers information on attackers.
"They have the place locked down," Kidd said of the insurgents. "We have almost no support from the local people. We talk to 1,000 people and one will come forward."
First Sgt. Robert Goudy, of Bulldog Company, summed up the soldiers' frustration in fighting an elusive enemy: "It's like an elephant trying to catch a mouse."
At the home of Ghaeb, the Qaysi tribal leader, Capt. Matt Bartlett leans forward and directs a piercing gaze at the sheik, who is dressed in a gold tasseled robe and red-checked headdress.
"You may know, down past that bridge four of my soldiers were killed," says Bartlett, the 29-year-old company commander, of Montville, N.J., his voice low and tense.
Ghaeb bursts into rapid-fire Arabic. "From the bridge to the island is not my area!" he says, gesturing toward the Tigris flowing just beyond his courtyard.
Bartlett wasn't impressed. "They are scared of us and of being seen with us," he explained later. "They go along with the status quo."
A few weeks before, Bartlett and others recalled, the captain and one of his platoon leaders, 1st Lt. Dennis W. Zilinski, of Freehold, N.J., had visited the neighborhood to try to gain information from Ghaeb about a cell of bomb-makers. Zilinski, an amiable young officer and captain of his West Point swim team, brought toys for Ghaeb's children and traded high-fives with them.
The sheik was holding a large gathering and was unavailable, they were told. The American convoy tried to turn around, but Iraqi cars blocked the way and people waved the soldiers down an alternative, dirt route along the Tigris nicknamed "Smugglers' Road."
"It was weird," Bartlett recalled thinking. A few hundred yards down the road, bordered by fields, the convoy was hit by a massive explosion.
Behind the blast, Goudy jumped out of his Humvee and ran forward toward the huge cloud of smoke and debris. As it cleared, he was confused by what he found.
‘I felt so angry and violated’
"I saw this big piece of flesh and thought it was a goat or cow. I thought, 'Wow, these guys put an IED in a dead animal,' " he recalled. He went on, hoping to find his men sitting in the truck. But as he got closer, he recalled, "I didn't see the truck. I started seeing limbs and body parts." Goudy tripped over what was left of one soldier. Then he found the only survivor of the five soldiers in the Humvee, blinded and screaming.
"It was horrible," Bartlett said. "We had to pick up body parts 200 meters away." The Humvee was "ripped in half and shredded," he said, by a monster bomb later found to contain 1,000 pounds of explosives and two antitank mines, with a 155mm artillery round on top.
The attack left the platoon outraged.
"I felt so angry and violated," said Goudy, of Clarksville, Tenn. "We all wanted to go out and tear up the city, kick down the doors, shoot the civilians, blow up the mosque." Goudy and others were convinced Iraqis living nearby knew about the bomb but did nothing to warn them.
Sitting at a wooden table outside his crowded bunk, Sgt. John Coleman, of Greenwood, S.C., dismantled a machine gun for cleaning and recalled his lost mates.
There was Zilinski with his upbeat charisma, and the husky, 5-foot-3 Spec. Dominic J. Hinton, 24, of Jacksonville Tex., who beamed with pride over his two young kids and called home every few days. Staff Sgt. Edward Karolasz, 25, of Powder Springs, N.J. was a rare squad leader who cultivated friendships with the men under him. But it was Cpl. Jonathan F. Blair, of Fort Wayne, Ind., the tattooed and tough-looking machine-gunner, who galvanized the men with a note he left behind:
"Don't blame anyone for my death, as much as you may want to. It was my decision, my life and my choice. . . . To all the boys still fighting -- keep going, stay strong, and remember you'll all be home soon."
Coleman paused from wiping down the gun. "If we leave and this place falls apart, they will have died in vain," he said.
The same day as the attack, the platoon headed off base for another mission. Two days later, they received a bit of good news: An intelligence report recounted insurgents as saying that the recently arrived American troops "aren't scared of anything."