TA’MEEM, Iraq — Talk about your mean streets. Even U.S. soldiers won’t walk down them in daylight.
Not if they don’t have to. Not even with Kevlar helmets, bulletproof vests, and shatter-resistant goggles.
Walk down the streets of Ta’meem? In broad daylight? No way. Not if you can’t even say hello.
“If you don’t have an interpreter, doing a foot patrol isn’t really useful,” said Capt. Adam Rudy of the Schweinfurt, Germany-based 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment. “You’re not making any headway. Just walking down the street doesn’t do you anything but get you shot at.”
That’s how it is in Ta’meem, even for soldiers like Rudy’s Company B “Predators,” who are as much prey as predator in this nervous suburb of Ramadi, where bombs are planted in the streets and snipers lurk.
The plan to fix the mess in Ta’meem and turn the town back over to Iraqi soldiers, Iraqi police and its 25,000 legitimate residents centers around a place called Combat Outpost Steel.
It’s a fortress that opened on Oct. 12 in the middle of Ta’meem from where soldiers of the 1-18 and an Iraqi battalion work. The plan is to use the inkblot strategy: Set up shop in the middle of hostile territory and make things right, one block at a time.
COP Steel and its soldiers will stay put until the snipers and bombers are swept out of town.
Ta’meem’s residential area is less than two miles long and a mile wide. It’s not fraught with the Shiite vs. Sunni sectarian violence that plagues Baghdad and other areas. There is a skeletal industrial zone and nearby, a barely functioning university. Many who used to work in factories and attend the university live here.
Across the Euphrates River lies downtown Ramadi, capital of Anbar province.
Perhaps by the end of the Predators’ yearlong tour, COP Steel will become an Iraqi army base or police station.
But for now the 1-18 soldiers largely communicate with the children of Ta’meem by waving through the bulletproof glass of their armored vehicles, from which the soldiers of COP Steel do much of their daytime work.
Keeping a lookout
Soldiers park at key intersections and watch for people acting suspiciously, such as digging holes for roadside bombs.
“No unauthorized stopping,” read signs in Arabic at one notorious intersection. “If stopped, you may be fired upon by Iraqi and coalition forces.”
Soldiers use the evening to do “census missions,” knocking on doors and introducing themselves. Residents are asked through an interpreter how many people live there, which mosques they attend, if they have jobs, and if they have issues that need to be addressed.
“We don’t come in to secure (a) house,” Rudy said. “We come in to get the pulse of the population. A lot of times people say, ‘We know where the bad people are.’”
The Iraqi soldiers, who work with U.S. military advisers, do patrol the neighborhood on foot. They oversee about 20 percent of Ta’meem. Since they speak the language, they have a natural advantage, said Marine Sgt. Timothy Embree, of Military Transition Team 10, which advises the Iraqi battalion.
Embree said the locals have reacted favorably to the Iraqi soldiers, and to Americans such as himself who walk with them.
“A big thing in the Arab culture is ‘masta,’ or macho,” Embree said. “You earn it by showing your manliness,” such as by patrolling on foot with less obvious protection, and trusting the people you’re with.
The long-stated goal of the U.S. military is to enable Iraqi forces to take over.
The plan here calls for the 1-18 soldiers to slowly phase themselves out of work. But the people are scared, Rudy said. Those who want to cooperate with U.S. and Iraqi forces feel intimidated.
Taming a town
Rudy’s soldiers have been in business for six weeks.
They’ve rounded up about 45 people who will be going to jail for planning and/or executing violence against U.S. and Iraqi forces, as well as general bullying.
The soldiers have found caches of mortars, artillery shells, rocket-propelled grenades and other paraphernalia, including a car that was hollowed out for possible use as a car bomb.
The Predators have lost a soldier, Cpl. Eric Palacios, killed by a sniper.
One Humvee driver lost his leg to a roadside bomb; a Humvee was disabled by an armor-piercing round to the engine.
“That’s why last night, it felt pretty good to nab some bad guys,” 1st Lt. Brian Miletich, a platoon leader, said of a recent raid.
The crew is not the first to try to rein in Ta’meem.
A unit from the Pennsylvania Army National Guard’s 2nd Brigade, 28th Infantry Division previously patrolled there. Soldiers from the Baumholder, Germany-based 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment spent four months patrolling Ta’meem, losing seven soldiers and others wounded.
Now, though, is the first time soldiers have actually been based there.
In addition to the military mission, soldiers such as Company B 1st Sgt. Jerry Almario have simple desires.
“My personal goal is bringing my boys home,” Almario said. “That should be the goal of every first sergeant.”
The bigger picture calls for Ta’meem’s citizens to govern themselves and walk their streets with peace of mind while blue-shirted Iraqi policemen uphold law and order.
Who knows what Ta’meem will look like after the soldiers’ yearlong tour?
“From when we took over to where we are now,” Rudy said, “I think it’s better.”