U.S. forces are pushing Shiite militias farther from the Green Zone in an attempt to put the area out of range for rockets and mortars that have recently pounded the diplomatic and government enclave.
The strategy — which targets the southern outskirts of the Shiite district of Sadr City — began as part of a wider crackdown on armed Shiite groups that left Iraqi leaders in disarray after strong resistance and protests from the powerful Mahdi Army militia.
But for American commanders, the showdowns offered an opportunity to move against the launch sites, known as "rocket boxes," which soldiers previously had not reached through the teeming Sadr City streets.
U.S. troops reinforced positions on the edges of Sadr City — an 8-square-mile slum with about 2.5 million people — and have battled their way into suspected launch sites.
"We've seized the 'rocket boxes' and pushed them north," said Col. John Hort, commander of the Third Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.
The 107 mm rockets typically used by the militiamen could hit the Green Zone if fired from the southern edges of Sadr City, about 3.5 miles northeast of the zone. The rockets can be launched from mobile platforms. Mortars, too, can be done in a fire-and-hide style.
Militants used a few 122 mm rockets, which can be fired from far deeper inside Sadr City where there is no American presence, but they seem to have few of those weapons.
Trying to stop such attacks has "driven us mad," Hort said.
Deadly strikes inside Green Zone
Dozens of salvos have poured into the Green Zone since Iraqi forces opened a campaign against Shiite gangs in the southern city of Basra. The Mahdi Army, led by anti-American cleric Mutqada al-Sadr, fought Iraqi police and soldiers to a stalemate in Basra and staged protests and attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere.
The Green Zone strikes killed at least two American government workers inside the U.S.-protected district, which includes the American and British embassies and key Iraqi government offices. More than a dozen Iraqi civilians were killed by short-falling volleys outside the zone.
Hort said U.S. forces faced relentless militia attacks in Sadr City, but were able to establish patrol bases overlooking the launch sites.
The militiamen, he said, were "entrenched and determined to fight."
And they haven't yet surrendered the territory.
No 'chai time'
Capt. David Uthlaut was sprawled on his back on the roof of Patrol Base Texas on Thursday afternoon along with seven other American soldiers after snipers opened fire from a nearby building on the southern edges of Sadr City.
"Whatever happened to chai time?" he said in his Charleston, S.C., drawl, wryly referring to the time of day many Iraqis take a tea break and the hour that snipers have targeted his outpost for the past five days — around 4:30 p.m.
The base — nothing but an abandoned, four-story cold-storage warehouse — overlooks a dusty, trash-littered soccer field that days before was the insurgents' main rocket launching site, commanders said.
The push against the launch site also displays internal tensions on how to maintain the footholds.
Hort and other U.S. commanders want Iraqi forces to quickly take charge of the mission, seeking to limit the direct U.S. presence in Sadr City, even on its edges, and avoid long-running confrontations with the Mahdi Army.
But Iraqi troops appeared to have a sideline role in Patrol Base Texas.
Even as snipers targeted the base, some Iraqi soldiers were inside sipping tea or eating bread. Some snoozed away the afternoon's heat. None was carrying his weapon.
Iraqis waver at checkpoints
Last week, the Mahdi Army overran two Iraqi army checkpoints near Sadr City. Other Iraqi checkpoints held their ground after American reinforcements arrived. While U.S. soldiers were happy that some Iraqi checkpoints held, they wish it wouldn't require American reinforcements for them to do so.
Which was a theme at Patrol Base Texas — the Iraqis' reluctance to take the initiative and their reliance on American troops for all decisions.
For instance, the highest-ranking Iraqi commander at Patrol Base Texas asked Uthlaut to send an American patrol to a nearby Iraqi army checkpoint. Iraqi national police had previously set up the checkpoint but were now going to tear it down. The Iraqi wanted the Americans to stop the police from doing that.
"What can I tell them?" Uthlaut said to the Iraqi. "Can you not tell your Iraqi brothers that you're all on the same team?"
Eventually Uthlaut convinced the commander that an American patrol was not needed to sort the situation out. The checkpoint was still standing as of early evening.
Despite the hurdles of working with the Iraqis, the captain wanted to make one thing clear.
"I don't want you walking away from here thinking that we didn't accomplish our mission," Uthlaut told a reporter at dusk after going to a nearby U.S. base to attend some briefings.
"We did accomplish our mission," he said. "We held the high ground, we've kept the roads clear and they aren't firing any more rockets."