Mideast edition, Saturday, June 16, 2007

BAGHDAD — The sun wasted little time early Friday. Soon after dawn, it was already hinting at the triple-digit scorcher to come.

Soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat team huddled before launching the first of a half-dozen patrols — more than usual — through the eastern Baghdad district of Adhamiyah.

Soldiers typically leave the wire poised for the unexpected, but on this day they reminded themselves to be particularly vigilant. They were venturing out on the third day of a curfew imposed after the bombing of the Askariya mosque in Samarra, about 65 miles north of Baghdad. There was hope that the fragile calm in the wake of the attack would hold.

“We are increasing our presence,” said 1st Lt. William Lord, a 28-year-old from Foxboro, Mass. “Insurgents want to create a divide [with the bombing] and we are trying to prevent that from breaking out into further sectarian violence.”

Few would be surprised if the attack on the Shiite holy site incited retaliation. The destruction in February 2006 of the mosque’s gilded dome touched off a wave of sectarian violence that has only recently begun to subside.

According to Lt. Col. David Oclander, when the 2nd BCT arrived as the first of the Baghdad security plan’s “surge” troops earlier this year, it was common to find between 200 to 250 murder victims a month in the area.

That number has plunged to 20 to 40 a month, he said.

“Now what the bombing [of the Askariya shrine] is going to do to that, we don’t know,” he said. “At least now we are prepared.”

There have been reports of a handful of attacks against Sunni mosques but nothing near the scale of what was seen after last year’s bombing of the shrine.

As he left outpost War Eagle on Friday, Lord said he wanted to enforce the curfew without a heavy hand. “People may be out shopping for food or getting something for their kids,” he said. “We don’t want to come down on them too hard, but we have to remind them that they cannot be on the streets.”

The round-the-clock curfew was imposed indefinitely by the Iraqi government Wednesday, shortly after the bombing of the Askariya mosque.

After joining with Iraqi security forces, Lord led the unit to a popular open-air market in a Sunni section of Adhamiyah. The market was nearly deserted. Lord approached a fruit vendor and informed him that his goods had to be packed up earlier than usual. The vendor nodded knowingly and put up little resistance.

“I was expecting more of a ‘what the hell’ reaction,” Lord said. “But these people seem to understand.”

He approached a group of Iraqi men, seated in a circle in front of a row of shops.

“What do you think about the curfew,” Lord asked through a translator. One gray-haired man spoke up. “I think for us, for me, it’s a problem, I can’t get food and I’m not making money,” he said through a translator.

Lord said, “I understand, it’s not good for business at all but we want to prevent any violence.”

The unit made its way a few streets away to the predominately Shiite area of Gray’at. There, soldiers stopped traffic and began instructing drivers to return home.

Again, coalition forces met with little disagreement.

Soon they were returning to War Eagle, the first patrol of the day done.

“It’s just the morning,” Lord said. “We’re going to be out here all day.”

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