BAGHDAD, Iraq — For the next six months, and probably longer, 1st Lt. Ed Lauer’s platoon will essentially own a 6-square-mile zone in downtown Baghdad.

The unit’s area includes Mansur, a well-to-do district of restaurants, fine homes and bustling businesses; the Grand Mosque, Saddam’s largest and still-unfinished center of Muslim worship; and a complex of bombed out Iraqi Intelligence Service buildings now inhabited by dirt-poor squatters.

“It’s like Tijuana,” said Lauer, a San Diego native who speaks Spanish. “You have the First World right next to the Third World.”

This is the new home of the Baumholder, Germany-based soldiers.

“We’re discovering it all as we go along,” Lauer, leader of 1st Platoon, Company B, 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, said of the 1st Armored Division’s 2nd Brigade.

On Tuesday, members of the 1st Platoon made their third solo patrol in the area. They got to Iraq two weeks ago from Kuwait. They took their positions in Mansur barely a week ago, relieving 3rd Infantry Division soldiers who took the area during the war.

They studied maps before they left their camp, memorizing landmarks and potential hot spots. Then the 18 soldiers in two Bradley fighting vehicles fanned out in the city.

It was too early to tell, soldiers said, what they thought of their new duty. Many, like Spc. Eugene Eddy, a Bradley gunner, have experience in the Balkans to help guide them. Eddy, 27, of Las Vegas, was in Kosovo in the winter of 2000.

“I don’t really have an impression of Baghdad yet,” Eddy said.

As the Bradleys trundled down the wide, well-to-do boulevards of Mansur, west of the Tigris River, most people looked up from the streets with smiles and waves.

On one smaller street, however, a woman sprayed her young son with a garden hose when he tried to wave at the soldiers.

Winning over Iraqis who don’t want the American occupation force in Baghdad will be his platoon’s toughest job, said Lauer, 30.

“Having them gain our trust and having us gain their trust is the biggest challenge,” he said, “so they can understand that we don’t want to run their government, but that they can now run their own government and establish a democracy.”

It’s a pretty heady goal, but one that comes from on high.

Col. J.D. Johnson, commander of the division’s 2nd Brigade, said he expects his soldiers to leave behind a network of neighborhood councils at the end of their tour.

“They’re out meeting people; beating the bushes to find out who the local leaders are,” Johnson said.

Soldiers also are coming across those who don’t have a voice in Iraqi society, and maybe never will.

In the looted buildings still standing in the intelligence center, some 50 bedraggled squatters ventured out to Lauer’s platoon members, who got out of their Bradleys to look around.

Women carried obviously malnourished babies, toddlers ran around shoeless and, sometimes, naked. The men had cleverly tapped into the electrical system and found a way to pipe running water into the buildings. Trash filled the streets and the empty cages made for long-stolen air conditioners still hung on the buildings.

“They wanted to know if we were going to kick them out,” Lauer said of the squatters. “We’ll let them stay. They’ve got nowhere else to go. And maybe we can get them some help — some food, clothing and medical care.”

The platoon has about $25,000 at its disposal to use on projects, Lauer said. The squatters might be the first to get some of the money.

After the patrol, the men had a quick briefing on what they had seen and what they would do on their overnight patrol. But many of them stuck together after the work was done, getting haircuts and chatting around a table in their command post.

“The bond created on these deployments is pretty strong,” Eddy said. “You can’t get that in the civilian world.”

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