Moving troops into small Iraq bases adds risks

A colonel in the Iraqi army speaks with members of the U.S. Army's 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery, 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division in the Hateen neighborhood of western Baghdad on April 29.
A colonel in the Iraqi army speaks with members of the U.S. Army's 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery, 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division in the Hateen neighborhood of western Baghdad on April 29.Lauren Frayer / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The roof is like many others in western Baghdad, except for the American soldier hiding behind sandbags, training his rifle on the street below.

Outside the house, Iraqi children weave their tricycles between rolls of barbed wire. Inside, U.S. and Iraqi troops plot raids and collect information on their new neighbors.

The United States hopes that placing troops on small, discreet outposts like this one in the heart of one of Baghdad’s toughest neighborhoods will pay off in goodwill from the public and tips on militant activity.

But there are risks: Two suicide bombers killed nine Americans at one such base north of Baghdad in April.

“We could build a fortress around ourselves that no one can penetrate, but then we will have lost,” said Lt. Col. Greg Gadson, who commands the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery. His unit belongs to one of the five U.S. brigades sent here as part of President Bush’s plan to stabilize Baghdad.

‘We get threats all the time’
It’s only a matter of time before insurgents attack, he fears. “We get threats all the time,” said Gadson, 41, of Chesapeake, Va.

Gadson’s troops set up what the military calls a Joint Security Station two weeks ago in Baghdad’s Yarmouk area, within only yards of residents and suspected insurgents. About 50 Americans and 10 Iraqis live at the base. From here, they fan out on foot patrols, handing out flyers with the number of a telephone hot line to report militant activity anonymously.

Installations like the Yarmouk station are part of America’s new strategy here. Nearly three months on, U.S. ground commanders cite slow, but tangible, progress.

Before the arrival of Gadson’s soldiers, the U.S. military had a sparse presence in Yarmouk, an upscale Sunni Muslim area that was once home to members of high-ranking officials from Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Many homes were abandoned, looked after now by distant relatives or hired caretakers while the owners wait out the war in Jordan or Syria. The Yarmouk outpost is in one such house. The U.S. military is negotiating the rent with a former Iraqi army general who is in Jordan for medical treatment.

Driving away militants
When Gadson’s troops first walked these streets two months ago, it was a garbage-strewn ghost town, they said. Residents peered quizzically from second-floor windows at U.S. patrollers below. Fear kept the area’s mostly Sunni residents from cooperating with Iraq’s Shiite-dominated military.

But with a U.S. outpost in the area, residents believe militants will find someplace else to operate, said Capt. Jose Henderson, 31, of Milwaukee. And residents trust they won’t be mistreated by Shiite soldiers while Americans are watching, he said.

Bodies used to turn up on these streets daily — the likely victims of Shiite death squads who murdered Sunnis execution-style in the night. U.S. officials have cited a decrease in such sectarian killings since the Baghdad security plan began Feb. 14.

While Yarmouk is still largely shuttered, some shops have begun opening and families allow their children to play in the streets. The U.S. military hired a local man to organize community garbage pickup.

“That’s my sense of accomplishment, when you can see tangible changes,” said Henderson. “We all want to be able to answer that question when we go home: ‘Do you think you helped?”’

The troops tightened security after the deadly April 23 attack against the similar outpost in Diyala, which was hit by two dump trucks laden with explosives, Henderson said.

“Before that attack, we were letting vehicular traffic basically right up to our back door,” he said. Now, large concrete barriers keep traffic more than 50 yards away.

Some electronic security measures also were added, Henderson said, but he declined to comment further for security reasons.

“It’s all about risk management, and determining how much risk is worth our relationships with the local population,” he said.

For troops, preferable to barrackss
Most of the 50 American troops at the Yarmouk outpost said they preferred it to their barracks at Camp Liberty, a huge U.S. military complex near the Baghdad airport. Soldiers typically rotate four days at Liberty and four days at the Yarmouk station, which has no running water, food service or laundry.

“If someone blindfolded you and plopped you down on (Camp) Liberty, you could be on any U.S. military installation anywhere. You might not know you were in Iraq,” said Gadson, who studied Arabic and Middle East history at West Point in the 1980s and is now on his first tour in Iraq.

At the Yarmouk outpost and others like it, “you’re just so much closer,” he said.