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Pfc. Jason Johns (left), Sgt. Daniel Hicks, manning the M2 gun, and 2nd Lt. Chris Ricci get ready to patrol Thawra, one of Baghdad's toughest neighborhoods. The soldiers are from 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Squadron, Fox Troop.
Pfc. Jason Johns (left), Sgt. Daniel Hicks, manning the M2 gun, and 2nd Lt. Chris Ricci get ready to patrol Thawra, one of Baghdad's toughest neighborhoods. The soldiers are from 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Squadron, Fox Troop. (Marni McEntee/ S&S)

BAGHDAD, Iraq — When soldiers of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment roll out on a night patrol, they embrace the darkness.

Humvee lights stay black as drivers cruise down streets in stealthy columns. Soldiers use night vision goggles to see, and keep a yellow lens on their flashlights to read maps.

“It gives us a tactical advantage,” said Capt. Scott Schumacher, leader of Fox Troop, 2nd Squadron of the Fort Polk, La.-based regiment.

Schumacher’s troop — roughly the size of an infantry company — needs every edge. In its section of northeast Baghdad called Thawra, which means “revolution” in Arabic, 500,000 people live in tightly packed neighborhoods. Most are Shiite Muslims and the rest are Sunni.

Plenty of people, it seems, don’t want Fox Troop there.

“We’ve been shot at twice and returned fire twice,” Schumacher said. “We’ve disarmed people. We’re going to protect ourselves first. That’s the bottom line.”

At a heavily fortified bunker in their zone, soldiers eat dinner in the dark. They chew the fat around the glow of cigarette tips.

The bunker used to be one of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s command-and-control centers, Schumacher said. Soldiers at the bunker are guarding a sizable container of cobalt that the U.S. military fears could be used for chemical weapons.

“I’m holding ground somebody wants right now,” said Schumacher, 30, of Little Rock, Ark.

A month after Fox Troop arrived in Thawra, which used to be called Saddam City, six of its vehicles were ambushed as they moved in to secure the bunker.

“My vehicle and the CO’s [commanding officer’s] vehicle pulled in, and that’s when the shooting started,” said Staff Sgt. Shannon Ducet, showing off an AK-47 bullet hole in the rear panel of his Humvee.

One soldier, Staff Sgt. Donovan Knight, was shot in the hand. The others escaped.

“Three hours later, a motorcycle came by and shot at us,” Ducet, 29, of Lake Arthur, La., said. No one was hurt.

Last week, somebody in an ambulance dumped four bodies on the street in Fox Troop’s zone, Schumacher said. The men had been assassinated.

Soldiers are constantly re-evaluating their defensive positions at the bunker, which looks out on a busy Thawra street. Drive-by shooters have sprayed the bunker. Once, someone shot a rocket-propelled grenade that hit the side of the building. No one was injured in those attacks.

“I like to be able to lay out a field of fire from the M2,” a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on the bunker roof, 2nd Lt. Chris Ricci said. “It scares the \[expletive\] out of people at night.”

“My guys don’t sleep when they’re out here,” said Ricci, 22, of Daytona Beach, Fla. They’re too keyed up about what might happen.

An hour after nightfall Wednesday, Fox Troop’s patrol started quickly when somebody shot off two flares over a mosque not far from the bunker. Then some tracer rounds lit the sky.

With the help of one of the regiment’s UH-60 Black Hawks flying surveillance overhead, the patrol moved on the mosque area in a pincer movement. They didn’t find anyone with weapons, so they regrouped at the bunker.

“I think they got the message,” the radio squawked in a message from Outlaw One, one of the Black Hawk pilots.

After 11 p.m. — curfew hour — the patrol began again. As three Humvees crawled along a darkened street, an orange-and-yellow Volkswagen Passat screeched over a median in front of Schumacher’s Humvee, nearly colliding with it.

The driver, in the traditional white robe many Muslims wear, apparently was drunk. He fell to the ground as soon as soldiers opened his car door. They handcuffed him and put him into a small room in the bunker they call “the drunk tank.” A soldier drove the Passat back to the bunker.

“He’ll be out at 0500,” Schumacher said. “We’ll let him walk home.”

After running a drill to secure the area in case of an attack, the unit called it a night. Tomorrow, the soldiers figured, they’d likely face another round of drunks, or assassins, or carjackers, or outlaw gunmen.

“Every day is different. Every day is the same,” Schumacher said.

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