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In Baghdad, fighting their ‘Alamo’

Times Staff Writer

The 16-man platoon from Ft. Hood, Texas, uses a decrepit Iraqi national police compound for its outpost. Chickens, turkeys and sheep laze on the lawn, drenched by an overflowing septic tank. Each day, the soldiers venture out for a few hours onto the dangerous streets of what was once a fashionable Sunni Arab neighborhood.

Led by a 24-year-old West Point graduate, the Americans weave their Humvees among villas commandeered by Sunni fighters who snipe at them from rooftops, bury bombs in the streets and evade searches with the help of two men dubbed the “moped twins,” who relay the platoon’s position by walkie-talkie at nearly every turn.

The troops stay overnight in makeshift quarters, nursing their wounds and attempting to hold onto any gains they’ve made through the day in the now-downtrodden Amiriya and Khadra districts.

The latest U.S.-Iraq security plan, based on occupying neighborhood bases and having close contact with the community, is nowhere more intense and focused than here in west Baghdad, where Iraqi forces battle daily with homegrown Sunni Muslim insurgents and foreign Islamist fighters.

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Five U.S. soldiers have died this month in Amiriya, victims of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, and snipers. Since the arrival of additional troops in February, the square-mile area patrolled by 1st Lt. Schuyler Williamson’s platoon and others from the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, has been the site of 300 IEDs buried in or alongside the road. An Army intelligence map uses small red blast symbols to mark bomb sites. The symbols obscure entire thoroughfares.

Soldiers here now openly declare pessimism for the mission’s chances, unofficially referring to their splinter of heavily fortified land as “the Alamo.”

“Sometimes,” said Brendan Gallagher, the captain who oversees Williamson, “we like to comfort ourselves when we are taking a lot of IEDs and casualties by saying that the enemy is desperate, they are doing this because they are scared. But how many times can they actually be desperate? I sometimes worry that this period will end up going down here as their surge, not ours.”

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The ‘Texan militia’

The soldiers in Williamson’s platoon have patrolled Iraq elbow-to-elbow in Humvees since November. Among them is Sgt. Andrew Zamacona, nicknamed “Tackleberry” after the character from the movie “Police Academy” who is always gung-ho for a fight. And there’s Pfc. Alonzo Duncan, a former mechanic who reenlisted two years ago, at 40. They labeled him “Blue” after a character in the film “Old School” who wants to join the college fraternity in his old age.

Williamson calls himself the governor of Texas as he patrols Khadra. He refers to his soldiers as the Texan militia.

Over the course of four recent days, his soldiers were struck repeatedly by IEDs, one of which blasted a hole through an Army medic’s foot, requiring him to be sent home. The platoon was also attacked by snipers; a bullet ripped through the fingers of an Iraqi national police captain accompanying the Americans on a joint patrol.

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Checkpoints operated by Iraqi police at two entry points into Khadra came under gunfire several times a day, and a desecrated corpse suspected to be that of an Iraqi policeman was found hanging May 15 from a lamppost in Amiriya.

Col. J.B. Burton, the top commander of the brigade that includes the platoon, acknowledges difficulties but said that American and Iraqi troops were making progress elsewhere in the capital. “The troops in Khadra and Amiriya don’t always get to see that,” he said.

For their sacrifice, the troops here have been able to make minimal gains in increasing contact with the Iraqi populace and helping with trash collection, fuel delivery, sewage repairs and the delivery of other essential services. They have also continued to be diverted by tedious, largely fruitless searches for their attackers. Williamson said they find about one suspect for every 15 explosions.

On May 14, a Monday, the soldiers began such a search from Camp Liberty, where they had been spending a break from their Khadra outpost, enjoying lattes and cheese grits at the sprawling military base near Baghdad’s airport. A Bradley fighting vehicle earlier in the day had struck a bomb buried in a road in Amiriya 15 minutes away, and the platoon was assigned to a door-to-door search for those responsible.

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Before leaving Liberty, the men formed a circle in the midafternoon heat, their arms wrapped around one another’s shoulders, and recited: “Please bring us home to our families, Lord, in your strong name we pray.”

In the Bradley’s cramped quarters, 20-year-old Pfc. Optaciano Araujo carried his M-4 with 210 rounds of ammunition and a picture taped on the gun’s stock of the 4-month-old daughter he’d never met. He said he had twice been in vehicles when they were hit by IEDs, and his convoy had been hit eight times more.

“We’re about to get shot standing in the middle of the street again,” he said.

Once in Amiriya, the soldiers knocked on a door. A woman answered with a smile, her hands covered in cookie batter. She was followed by five young children, including a naked toddler.

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Inside the two-story villa, the floors were covered with unwashed clothes. The woman and her husband said they baked cookies for a living, and cookies were strewn amid the clothes.

Like nearly half of the four dozen people interviewed that day in Amiriya, the couple, Sunni Arabs, said that they had been in the home only a few weeks. They said they left their mixed neighborhood after receiving a threatening letter at their home from radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia.

Staff Sgt. Saul Astrada of Calexico, Calif., asked the woman for papers showing she had the right to be in the house.

The Iraqi interpreter working with the patrol asked Astrada why, since only Iraqi officials had the power to evict squatters.

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“Just so that we can kill some time,” Astrada, 23, replied, adding in reference to the day’s heat: “You want to be in the back of the Bradley?”

The children huddled in the corner, their eyes flicking across the room, watching the soldiers as they searched through cabinets for papers.

Fifteen minutes later, the papers had not been found and the soldiers left without making any arrests. “Bullshit search,” Araujo mumbled.

The tank convoy continued to the site of the morning’s blast, and the soldiers fanned out to conduct more searches. For hours, they detained most people walking in the street on suspicion that they might be trying to evade other American soldiers.

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Some residents invited the troops into well-tended homes, one with faded red velvet couches and portraits of children on the refrigerator. More of the homes were spartan carcasses occupied by people who said they had lived there for only a few weeks, sometimes three families to a residence. None were able to provide rental papers.

As the sun set and the soldiers tired, many sat in chairs in the courtyard of an old man who had offered them tea and dragged his couch onto the lawn within the villa’s walls for their comfort. When they finally returned to Camp Liberty at 11:30 p.m., the platoon decided to let all its detainees go because there was no evidence they had done anything other than walk down the street.

Despite the friendly welcome from all residents interviewed, only one told the troops where they might find an IED, and that tip proved incorrect. No one said they knew where the soldiers could find a weapons cache, a suspect or a witness.

“Of course they know, but I can’t say I blame them for not telling us,” said Spc. John King, the Army intelligence officer leading the questioning. “They could be killed.”

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All thoughts on IEDs

Since the security plan was launched three months ago, the troops have tried to protect government and contract workers delivering gasoline, picking up trash and making sewer repairs. But all three services remain broken. The effort to fix potholes backfired by making it easier for insurgents to disguise the placement of IEDs as road repairs.

It was IEDs that were on the mind of the soldiers when they headed out again Tuesday morning.

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“Everybody have their game face on?” asked Sgt. Stephen Cyr as he steered a Humvee toward Khadra. “Do your thing, Martinez.”

“Big money, big money, big money. No whammies, no whammies, no whammies,” Spc. John Martinez said into his headset as the soldiers passed the place where they’d been hit by an IED the previous day and using a saying from the old television game show “Press Your Luck” as their daily rosary.

After 15 minutes, they arrived at the national police outpost where their company had established camp.

The base can house 50 soldiers at a time, although the numbers are less than half that because of staffing shortages. It features a large wall topped with concertina wire and is closed to the public.

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The downside of the security plan is that one of the three platoons that share the outpost must be stationed inside 24 hours daily. As a result, the company’s captain said there were fewer patrols in Khadra than before the security crackdown.

When the troops moved in to establish their quarters, they learned that their old outpost, a less fortified Iraqi police station, had come under attack

The Iraqi police “reported firing from 360 degrees each of the four days since we left. I don’t have much hope for them,” said Staff Sgt. Mike Perez, second in command of the platoon.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the “clear, hold, build” strategy of the security plan didn’t move beyond the clear stage.

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Ali Hussein, a 20-year-old Iraqi college student who lives near the station, said in a telephone interview that the group Al Qaeda in Iraq “is still active and is mostly kidnapping people on the basis that they have badmouthed the organization or an individual within. But the real reason they kidnap people is for ransoms so that they can finance their campaign.”

“Our situation is really tragic,” the student said. “We are surrounded on all sides and can’t do anything. Whichever side you work with, you end up being targeted by the other, and the worst thing is that there are more than two sides.”

Perez put it this way: “They tell us to come here and do a job. But we’ve got a pregnant beast and it’s opening up on us. It’s not getting any better, and I don’t see when it will.”

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Dreams of home

On Wednesday, an IED detonated during patrol. Gunfire erupted and an Iraqi police captain was wounded. The next day, another patrol in Khadra was hit by two IEDs in close succession -- a daisy chain.

Williamson’s soldiers went in search of the perpetrators and spotted the “moped twins” again, the two gap-toothed men who raised walkie-talkies to their mouths while following the platoon at a distance as the troops patrolled. The soldiers were happy to see one of the men point to a rooftop and then to the U.S. convoy. That overt act gave soldiers license to take a shot. The man cartwheeled over the front wheel, smacking the asphalt.

Just as quickly, he jumped up and fled into a house. The soldiers gave chase, but he escaped, jumping from roof to roof.

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In a nearby taxicab, the soldiers found an Al Qaeda in Iraq propaganda tape. Tests showed the car had carried homemade explosives within the last hour.

“I miss when the worst thing we had to do is go around this neighborhood picking up dead bodies,” said Cyr, the sergeant. “It’s sick, but true.”

Back at the outpost, the soldiers kill time with James Bond movies, computer war games and a bootlegged copy of the film “300.” In conversation, they return again and again to an itch for leaving the military.

“The only mission here is to get everybody out alive,” Sgt. Zamacona said.

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“I have lack of motivation,” Sgt. Adrian Uresti said. “I’m overweight. I can’t be promoted, I can’t receive any commendations. To me, it’s time to move on.”

“We don’t want any medals anyway,” Spc. Martinez said. “It’s a hell of an honor, but most of the guys don’t get to walk around with them.”

Martinez, 24, is one of the more optimistic men in the platoon. “We are definitely doing something good. You don’t always get to see us back home showing the Iraqis how to run checkpoints, how to get information, how to do these searches.”

The Iraqi forces join the Americans for joint patrols. And at the outpost, an Iraqi and American soldier teach each other the Arabic and English words for “hot.” A few of the Iraqis approached American soldiers with computers and asked, “Sex pictures?”

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Sometimes, though, the Americans and Iraqis squabble over TV rights and retreat to separate sides. A U.S. soldier guards the door to make sure no Iraqi police officer enters American sleeping quarters.

Three of the 16 soldiers in Williamson’s platoon always stay behind because they no longer patrol. Their mental health is in tatters. One lashed out against Williamson, another reported he couldn’t do the job anymore, and a third went home on leave and “couldn’t act right,” Williamson said.

On the hot vinyl couches, the conversation rarely strayed from Iraq, and Martinez and Uresti talked about the defining dates of their tours when best friends were killed or maimed.

“I worry about you guys,” Perez told them. “When I went home between tours, I forgot all about Iraq. I turned it off like a light switch. I wanted to get laid, get paid and get drunk. I didn’t worry about what I did, what I didn’t do -- and that’s what I’ll have to do again.”

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Times staff writer Therolf recently traveled with the platoon for four days. Staff writer Said Rifai contributed to this report.


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