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Friday, July 30, 2004

Iraq War News

By Toby Harnden in Sadr City
SOMETHING about Sadr City was not quite right. An hour earlier, there had been the usual throngs of barefoot children running out from between the piles of rotting garbage and pools of sewage to wave at American soldiers.
But as the four Humvees and two Bradley fighting vehicles of the Iron Deuce platoon of Warrior Company rumbled out from Camp Eagle towards the centre of the slum, the main streets were empty apart from a tethered donkey and a few wandering goats.

Small knots of men peered out from alleyways. A lone figure appeared from a rooftop and then vanished. “It’s kind of quiet around here,” said Specialist Daniel Brown, driving Humvee Alpha Three Six. Just 21, he had already seen more action in the past six weeks than many infantrymen do in two decades.

Sergeant Michael Williams and Staff Sergeant Robert Miltenberger surveyed the scene through the sights of their M-16 rifles.“Staff Sergeant, if anything happens and I get hit, my bandages are in my left cargo pocket,” said Sgt Williams, 30, a tobacco-chewing father of four and self-proclaimed “grunt from Texas”. ”Okay,” said Staff Sgt Miltenberger, at 38 one of the oldest men in the platoon. “I though for a moment you wanted me to tell your wife you loved her.”

From the Humvee behind, a loudspeaker began to blare out a message in Arabic prepared by the “psyops” –psychological operations – team. “To all Iraqis, peace be upon you…Help us make your proud community safer and turn in your functional weapons for cash.”
Many soldiers were skeptical about the “weapons buy-back” programme was worthwhile. With $200 being offered for an AK-47 – around four times the local value – the danger was that the Mahdi Army might give in guns simply to get money to buy more.
Led by Moqtada Sadr, a 31-year-old fiery Islamist cleric, the Mahdi Army is engaged in a deadly fight for control of Sadr City, named after his father, a revered religious figure. The younger Sadr enjoys only minority support – perhaps 10 or 20 per cent - but a Mahdi reign of terror in the area has helped stifle opposition.
Home to an estimated 2.5 million impoverished Shia, Sadr City, was formerly called Saddam City, a calculated insult from Saddam Hussein, whose dictatorship had systematically oppressed Iraq’s majority Shia population. After a year of relative calm, Sadr’s men killed eight soldiers from the 2nd Battalion of the US Army’s 5th Cavalry Regiment after mounting an ambush on April 4th, the day the mechanised infantry unit took responsibility for the area. Hundreds of Mahdi men died.

Apart from publicising the weapons buyback scheme, the aim of the afternoon patrol was to visit the Tatheeb police station to assess the morale of Iraqi police officers, most of whom deserted their posts on April 4th, and monitor Mahdi activity in their neighbourhood. With the six vehicles parked in defensive positions outside the police station, Lieutenant Dave Swanson, the 25-year-old West Point graduate commanding the Iron Deuce platoon, went inside to talk to the chief of police.
Removing his helmet to reveal a completely bald pate, Lt Swanson began to discuss the problem of policemen failing to turn up for work. “I don’t quit my job and they’re shooting at me too,” he explained through an interpreter. As he spoke a shot rang out from the south, quickly followed by two more. “AK”, he said. “First one sounded like a misfire.” Ordering two soldiers onto the roof, he calmly continued his conversation.
Minutes later, there was a much louder bang as a Rocket Propelled Grenade was fired at the vehicles outside. It was followed by the throaty rattle of an RPK light machine-gun from the south and then more AK-47s, this time from the east. “Looks like we’re about to have us a little shoot out,” said Lt Swanson.

Outside, the psyops team had been handing out leaflets about the weapon buyback to children who were taking them across the street to their parents. The adults were tearing them up the leaflets and throwing them on the ground. About eight children had been gathered around a Humvee when the first Mahdi shots were fired.
Staff Sgt Miltenberger, stationed on the roof, yelled down into the station courtyard that he could see a gunman firing from around a corner. “Well, as soon as he comes round the corner, you pick him off.” The NCO opened fire to the south. “Get him,” shouted Lt Swanson. “Shoot him Milt.” Fire was now coming in from three sides, leaving only the entrance to the police station clear. “Get everybody in here,” ordered Lt Swanson, detailing Sergeant 1st Class Eric Ivey, 29, the platoon sergeant, to assign each man a position.

A full-scale gun battle was now raging with the machine gunners from all six vehicles outside laying down a carpet of fire. The rattle of the RPK ceased suddenly. “I was just informed the Bradley took that RPK out,” said Sgt Ivey. Out in the street, a wailing chant was being broadcast. “Is that a call to worship?” Lt Swanson asked the police chief. It was too early for that. Instead, someone at the mosque was beckoning people to battle.

More and more Mahdi men were flocking to the area. “See if we can draw them to us and take them out,” said Lt Swanson to Sgt Ivey. “Then we’ll roll out.” The three-man psyops team had driven out in an unarmoured Humvee. Lieutenant Peter East, 27, normally the night battle commander from the base Tactical Operations Centre, came into the police station. This was his first combat patrol. “I got an RPG near me, about 15 to 20 feet away,” he said. “That was pretty sweet. This is what I wanted to see.”
With most of his 24 soldiers and the three psyops soldiers inside the police station there was no sign of the assault abating. “White One, White Four,” said Sgt Ivey to Lt Swanson, now on the roof. “What do you want to do?” Taking the fight to the enemy in the six vehicles was impossible because of the vulnerability of the psyops Humvee. Remaining at the police station would only further endanger the platoon and the Iraqi police. An RPG slammed into one of the Humvees, bouncing off the armour. It was time to leave, Lt Swanson decided.
There was a swift discussion about which route to take. Each road had been assigned a code name and there were two basic choices – head through the safer, southern sector via Florida and Arrows, the long way back, or head north through the eye of the storm and straight to base.
“Let’s head down Copper,” said Lt Swanson, plumping for the most direct route. “We’ve got to just shoot through and hope nothing hits us.” The heavily-armoured Bradleys were to take the front and rear.

If a Humvee was hit and taken out of action, the Bradleys were to draw up beside them to shield them from fire while any casualties were pulled out. By this time an AK-47 had opened up opposite the police station. With the crews of the Bradleys laying down suppressing fire, the soldiers from the Humvees ran out of the police station and clambered back into their vehicles. “Let’s get your asses out of here,” shouted Lt Swanson.
Sgt Ivey, taking up the rear, spotted a man with an Ak-47 creeping down an alley beside the police station. “He had blue jeans and a shirt on,” he recalled afterwards. “He got two shots off but they went over my head. I put four in his chest and he just fell backwards.” Another gunman appeared from the alley opposite. “I just held the trigger and squeezed off a few rounds. I think I got him in the leg.”
A third gunman appeared from the alley where the first had been shot. “I could hear the rounds bouncing off the vehicles and landing at my feet,” said Sgt Ivey. “I just grabbed my guys and we dove into the back of a Bradley.” As the six-vehicle convoy moved off towards route Copper, the Mahdi fire intensified. In Humvee Alpha Three Six, in the middle of the group, Sgt Williams let out a battle cry. “Yeehaah,” he screamed as he aimed his M-16. “Come on! Get some!”
As the vehicles sped up Copper, the shooting subsided and the crowds swarmed onto the streets. At the intersection with route Bravo an old
refrigerator and the metal frame of a car had been put down to block the road. Specialist Brown braked and pulled the Humvee to the right as the convoy threaded its way through.

An old man dressed in a white robe beckoned the vehicles up the street towards a burning barricade of tyres and rubbish. A common Mahdi tactic is to use barricades to slow down or trap vehicles and then mount an ambush. Lt Swanson ordered a u-turn.
Alpha Three Six swung around. “Let’s do it baby, let’s do it!” whooped Sgt Williams as an RPG whooshed past from behind the barricade. “Hell, yes! Come on! I wasn’t feeling very loved. I hadn’t got shot at in a while.”

Sgt Jacob Kramer, 29, on the 7.62mm machine gun mounted on top, shot at each muzzle flash from the buildings to the right. Lt East, in the lead Humvee, spotted a gunman running towards his vehicle from a side street. “He was carrying one of the few AKs I’ve seen with a
shoulder stock,” he said afterwards. “I fired three shots and hit him almost dead centre. “His whole body hunched over and he fell forward. There was a dark reddish spot spreading across his chest. The way the bullets are made, if you hit someone there it’s a pretty fair assumption he’s going to be dead.”

The patrol headed south and back to the longer route home to base. Alpha Three Six plunged through a deep trench filled with effluent, sending it spraying up into the vehicle and onto the street. Speeding along, the convoy passed a clothes shop dedicated to the Brazilian footballer Ronaldo and a barber’s called “Georg Michael”. By the playground US soldiers call Disneyland, some children waved. One boy raised him arms to simulate firing a shot.
As the convoy arrived back at Camp Eagle there was relief there had been no casualties but also excitement. “You missed the fun,” shouted one soldier at another on guard duty and then laughed. “He’s going to be all bent out of shape.”
An estimated seven or eight Mahdi Army members were killed in the afternoon firefight. While the Mahdi had been unsuccessful this time, the swiftness with which they attacked and then set up barricades to block off escape routes indicated a growing tactical sophistication.
That evening, Lt Swanson led a six-vehicle Bradley patrol that claimed 12 more Mahdi lives with no American casualties.
The next day, the men of Iron Deuce were gathered at a cigarette factory that had been designated for guns to be handed back. Seven hours into their duty a grand total of two AK-47s and one vintage Russian machine gun had been received.
There had been little pause to reflect on the enemy dead. “It’s an odd feeling to kill someone,” said Lt East, from Connecticut. “It’s not sadness. I’m not happy about it. It’s just a strange feeling knowing you’ve done that.” Sgt Williams was angry at the way the Mahdi fought. “They’re
fighting us like cowards,” he said. “We’re out there trying to help them and they’re shooting us, using children as shields.”
For Specialist Brown, from Dallas, the war in Sadr City is primarily about protecting his platoon. “None of it bothers me really, he said. “I’m just out there doing what I have to stay alive – keep all of us alive – and go home.”

Iraq War News
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