American troops, Iraqis prepare as time for massive march nears
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BAGHDAD — Sgt. 1st Class Robert George really could have used a crane.
George and his soldiers were readying for battle in the Hurriyah area of Baghdad. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had asked a million of his followers to march from Baghdad to Najaf on Wednesday. It was supposed to be peaceful, but there was heavy fighting at the end of March and sporadic fighting in the capital this weekend. But late Tuesday, al-Sadr called off the march, after hundreds of his followers in areas south of Baghdad complained that Iraqi security forces were keeping them away.
Iraqi and U.S. forces had fortified Baghdad in anticipation of the march. Iraqi army Sgt. Jasim Hamadi, a checkpoint commander, had wanted more concrete barriers before any fighting started. George had the barriers; he needed a crane to move them into position. But soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment had no luck rounding one up.
Hamadi said that it was not his soldiers’ will to fight that worried him. They did well during the last round. He’s confident in their ability should al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army decide to attack again.
“I want to [expletive] Muqtada — but I need concrete,” Hamadi concluded.
At another checkpoint, U.S. forces found that many of these Iraqis had been drinking, although they insisted that those actually manning the checkpoint are sober. They say they’re ready for any fight that’s coming.
They, too, need more concrete barriers. Bullets can easily pierce their headquarters’ wooden walls.
There are unused barriers for the taking just 100 meters down the street, George pointed out. “Do you know a crane operator?” No, they said. They are scared to work with Americans.
The conversation circled around for several more minutes. Then George hopped in his Humvee, reported on the radio that the Iraqis may be drunk and drove away.
With checkpoint inspections out of the way, the platoon begins searching former weapons cache sites. They come to a building with broken glass and walls. A single lamp struggles to fend off the night, but it’s enough to cast a glow on an open fifth of whiskey and wrestling medals left over from better days.
The march was still set to go on at this point, so George asks the man of the house if he is going to the march tomorrow. The man gestures to his wife, daughter and infant son. I’m a family man, he says. That’s not for me. He laughs and takes a drink.
Later, the Americans talk with a man in a hatchback who tries to leave when the soldiers pull up on a busy market street.
No, he’s not going to the march either, he says and points to a gaggle of kids in tow.
The Americans like the bread store owner just across the street. They once bought bread from him often during their patrols. Tonight they laugh and joke together.
The man hands the soldiers rolls crispy on the outside and marshmallow soft on the inside. “Are you going to the march?” George asks after a moment.
No, the man says, and then adds a bit defiantly: But I could if I want to.
Yes, George agrees, there’s nothing wrong with marching. Iraq is a democracy, after all. Just make sure it stays peaceful.