Soldiers Caught Between 2 Sides

Times Staff Writer

Shortly before 6 a.m. at Camp Liberty in Baghdad, 1st Sgt. Dave Meyer gave the mission brief to his soldiers: Patrol the streets, but keep a low profile. Don’t engage locals. Let Iraqis take the lead.

“Hanging out,” said Meyer, 36.

Until December, Meyer and his fellow soldiers in Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry, had patrolled this part of western Baghdad, a heavily Sunni Muslim area bordered on the north by the poor Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Shula.

At the end of the year, they had turned the territory over to an Iraqi battalion, predominantly Shiite.


But last week, the Americans were pulled out of their beds in the city of Abu Ghraib and sent to their old neighborhood. For four tense days, they patrolled the neighborhood -- part of the effort to tamp down fighting between Sunnis and Shiites that began with the bombing of one of the holiest shrines of Shiite Islam, the Golden Mosque in Samarra.

For the American soldiers it was an unfamiliar role. They found themselves in the middle of a fight they could only partially comprehend, stuck between two sides on the edge of civil war.

This was an Iraqi problem, their commanders told them. The solution would have to be Iraqi as well.

“It’s like a secret war,” said Lt. Justin Glass, a 27-year-old from Tallahassee, Fla. To his Iraqi interpreters and the Iraqi soldiers, he said, the mosque bombing “was like the Oklahoma City bombing.”

Glass added: “There’s stuff that we may never know. We’re sheltered because of cultural barriers.”

“It felt -- at times -- like someone else’s war,” said 28-year-old Capt. Gregory Stone of the 1st Squadron, 71st Cavalry.

When the mosque was attacked, Stone was at a district council meeting in the Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiya, talking with local leaders about what to do with a repeat check-fraud offender.

One of the Iraqis took a cellphone call. The interpreters stopped interpreting. Baffled U.S. soldiers looked on as a councilman talked to the others with great animation.

“Then,” Stone said, “all hell broke loose.”

Before long, Stone was investigating allegations of reprisals against Sunni mosques. But because neither he nor any other American was allowed to enter the houses of worship, they remained on the outside, looking in. “All we could do was stand outside and take pictures,” Stone said.

Despite a daytime curfew that kept the streets empty much of the time, 30 people have been killed in western Baghdad in the last five days, including two U.S. troops. At least 26 Iraqis were wounded as a steady stream of mortar shells rained down on Sunni and Shiite areas.

More than a dozen mosques were reported to have been attacked, although U.S. soldiers could confirm only three. Eight other mosques were briefly taken over by militias.

Armed neighborhood groups blocked off streets and patrolled at night. Shops were closed and families stayed home.

“It was a ghost town out there,” said Meyer, who fought in Somalia in 1993. “It was tense -- just weird.”

“We don’t want to get stuck between Sunnis and Shiites, fighting for a mosque,” he said. He added that the Iraqi forces “so far ... have had a handle on it.”

On Monday, as the curfew was lifted, life slowly crept back into the streets. After 6:30 a.m., trucks began to appear, their drivers hoping to make up for lost business. A man herded sheep as the sun filled in the colors of the landscape.

Meyer’s Humvee plowed through foot-deep sewage.

The sergeant pointed to the Sunni mosque known colloquially among Americans as MOAB -- the blue-tiled “Mother of All Battles” mosque that Saddam Hussein built to commemorate the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

In the shadow of the gigantic mosque, ramshackle houses were still covered with election graffiti and torn posters for Sunni political parties.

Outside the Humvee, armed militiamen guarded mosques and barbed wire lay coiled on walls like garlands.

Gunmen and bomb makers had attacked Meyer’s company continuously on these streets in the run-up to the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. Coming back, “we were expecting that we’d get shot at and hit” by roadside bombs, he said.

But the geography of violence had shifted, the soldiers found: Clashes had erupted in peaceful neighborhoods and restive areas had fallen quiet.

“Knock on wood -- we’ve only hit one” bomb, Meyer said.

“We were always welcomed in Shula and the Shiite areas,” he added. By contrast, in the Sunni neighborhood of Amariya, “they didn’t want us.”

Now the troops seemed more welcome in the Sunni neighborhood.

“Most people felt we were here, in the crossfire,” said Capt. Mike Fortenberry, commander of Charlie Company, referring to his soldiers. “The strangest thing was actually to hear the Sunnis say they were glad to see us.”

But none of the soldiers were assuming that welcome would last. Just before the patrol drew to a close, Meyer yelled at his gunner when an Iraqi driver got too close: “Bozak, watch the pickup truck!”

Outside, a group of young men glared at the convoy. There was tension in Meyer’s voice.

“This whole place creeps me out now,” he said.