Patience wears thin at a checkpoint

Times Staff Writer

On a smog-choked stretch of “Route Pluto,” a street haunted by snipers and bombs on the edge of Sadr City, Army Lt. Matt Vigeant was out in traffic looking for a white Opel.

A suspected Shiite Muslim extremist was expected at a funeral for one of his own, so Vigeant had set up an ad hoc roadblock in hope of nabbing him or other militants expected to be among the mourners.

He grew more frustrated with each passing car.

Frustrated that drivers were breezing through the orange traffic cones he had set up rather than slowly curling around them; frustrated that he had to yell above the belching engines and honking horns to get his soldiers’ attention; frustrated that he and his men were risking their lives doing a job more likely to infuriate passers-by than yield results.


Even with a list of suspects and their vehicles and photographs in front of him, Vigeant was doubtful that a big fish would be foolish enough to approach a U.S. checkpoint, especially so close to Sadr City, the sprawling Shiite district where the funeral was being held.

Any militia leader wanted by security forces probably was holed up deep in the neighborhood, where the U.S. military has no permanent presence and, Vigeant said, people are too afraid of cleric Muqtada Sadr or too swayed by his anti-U.S. rhetoric to turn in anyone fighting in his name.

Vigeant’s frustration was symbolic of the dilemma facing the U.S. military as it tries to quell violence in Sadr City without further inflaming Sadr loyalists, who want to drive the United States out of Iraq. The military knows that if it pushes too hard, Sadr could cancel a truce he called in August. If it doesn’t push hard enough, it risks allowing extremists to continue their attacks.

Whatever it does, it faces the distrust of many Iraqis whose lives have been upended by five years of war, and who see the soldiers more as threats than as do-gooders.

“Some people are grateful, but the closer you get to Sadr City, the more obvious they make their feelings,” said Vigeant, who made a point of thanking each driver he stopped and apologizing for the inconvenience. Most responded with polite nods. Some smiled.

“You try to show them you’re friendly,” he said. “You do all these things to show them we’re not here as crusaders, but it gets really frustrating. JAM just has that popular support,” he said, using the Arabic-based acronym for Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which holds sway in Sadr City.

Attacks have declined since an offensive against Shiite militias launched in late March by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki sparked fierce fighting in the area. But the situation on Route Pluto, as the military calls the multi-lane street where Vigeant set up traffic cones, remains extremely dangerous. In the early days of the offensive, Vigeant said, insurgents dumped piles of trash and concrete slabs along the street to conceal bombs. The closer you got to Sadr City, he said, the worse were the piles.

Vigeant’s platoon sergeant was injured in a bomb blast in late March.

“Sometimes I wonder if the people really appreciate what we’re trying to do,” Vigeant said as traffic zoomed by. “I risk my life every day on the street. My guys risk their lives every day.”

As he spoke, Vigeant frequently reminded his men to keep moving to reduce their chances of being hit by sniper fire.

Though they weren’t operating in Sadr City, their mission was a direct result of the fighting in the neighborhood. Earlier in the day, Iraqi police had notified U.S. forces that they planned to stake out the funeral of a mid-level militia fighter and could use backup. The U.S. responded with the roadblock on Route Pluto.

The results were at times comic, and at times suspenseful.

Vigeant put two sets of cones about 100 feet apart and then watched in frustration from his Humvee as traffic began driving through them at regular speed.

He got out of the Humvee and walked about 25 feet to an Iraqi police patrol with an interpreter, who explained the cones’ purpose and asked for help getting the traffic to go around them, not through them.

Back in the relative security of the Humvee, Vigeant watched as the police officers began stopping each vehicle, creating an instant traffic jam. He got back out, knowing the tie-up would anger motorists and create tensions.

“I want people to get through. I just don’t want them to speed. Like him,” Vigeant told the Iraqi police as a minivan whizzed between the cones.

Returning to the Humvee, Vigeant had a telephone handset against each ear. One kept him in touch with battalion headquarters, the other with troops at the second set of cones. Two soldiers in full battle gear stood in the street motioning for drivers who matched the suspects’ descriptions to pull over.

“Stop that white Toyota truck!” Vigeant shouted urgently to the soldiers nearest his Humvee as a vehicle matching the description of a suspect’s truck passed the checkpoint. The soldiers appeared not to hear. Vigeant jumped from his Humvee and dashed down the street after the truck, which stopped before reaching the second set of cones.

The truck was clean, as was its driver.

The next vehicle of interest seemed more promising. It was a white sedan, and again Vigeant hollered for it to pull over.

His temper was wearing thin as the men under his command moved slowly toward the car. A man sat inside, with a woman holding a child in the passenger seat.

It too was clean.

“Is everyone deaf today?” Vigeant shouted as he headed back to his Humvee. He grabbed his phone and sternly lectured the soldier in the other Humvee. “Me having to tell people to do specific things, like, ‘Hey come here and search this trunk’ -- that’s not my job.”

The lecture worked, and traffic of interest began gliding to the side of the road under the watch of the U.S. troops. Vans carrying young men were of interest, as were white Opels -- like the car belonging to the suspected extremist.

Elderly drivers were waved on. “Let this one go -- he’s too old,” Vigeant said as a white sedan with a white-haired man behind the wheel was pulled over.

A call came in that a white Opel was coming down the road. Vigeant was ecstatic. A big catch seemed possible after all.

“I want that more than I’ve wanted anything else today,” he said gleefully, demanding that the vehicle be sent his way.

As it approached, his mood changed.

“That wasn’t an Opel!” he bellowed into the handset, and he waved the driver away.