Baghdad at night: Potential danger on every corner
Stars and Stripes June 14, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — A small Iraqi boy ran a dozen blocks to alert U.S. troops to “Ali-baba” — a thief in his home.
When tankers from 2nd Platoon, Company B, of the 1st Battalion, 37th Armored Regiment heard of the home invasion, a mounted patrol of a half-dozen men under the command of Capt. Jon Brooks responded.
When the platoon’s trucks rounded the corner near the boy’s home, Brooks had a decision to make. He had little information to go on. There was no interpreter with him. The filthy street was dark, and unknown dangers lurked in the dark windows of abandon buildings.
“OK, let’s do it,” Brooks said. “Go red.”
A dozen Iraqis, mostly women and children, shouted in Arabic as the soldiers pulled a shirtless man from the grimy hovel and hog-tied him with plastic cuffs. He had threatened the family with a swordlike knife.
“That’s what we are here for, to protect these people,” said Pvt. Daniel Salas. “It always hits me hard when I hear the little kids saying ‘Ali-baba, Ali-baba.’”
Salas, 19, of Kennedy, Texas, catches hell from fellow troops for being the smallest in the platoon. Yet he took the thief to the ground with ease.
“My adrenaline was pumping,” Salas said. “Being little, people doubt me, so I step up and get the job done.”
Just seven weeks ago, Salas helped load his M1 Abrams tank onto a train at Ray Barracks in Friedberg, Germany. Now his tank sits idle while he patrols by Humvee with 2nd Platoon.
During their first weeks in Baghdad, Salas and fellow troops are feeling their way into their new role, something like that of a sheriff in the Wild West.
“We took over the city, and we’re like the law here,” Salas said. “We’re just trying to make this place better for them to live.”
Days are long for tankers assigned to patrol missions. They catch catnaps during lulls in the action at their compound in Abu Nawas, near the Tigris River.
On a big white marker board, 2nd Platoon writes out its day’s missions. In the morning, members escort the company commander, Capt. Todd Pollard, to a meeting with the local police chief. In the afternoon, they patrol the streets. Then came a bit of GI humor.
1. Seize weapons.
2. Kick ass
3. Make the world a better place by doing No. 2.
Once the younger troops leave Baghdad, any of life’s challenges will be insignificant, said Brooks, of Fayetteville, Ark.
“Guys are stepping up to the plate when they have to,” Brooks said. “Nineteen-year-old privates are talking to each other to get things done, like an older sergeant would.”
Brooks watches troops such as Salas, who are often putting themselves in harm’s way for national policy.
“I took so many things for granted, especially my family,” Salas said. “I’m a changed young man.”
Company B patrols three neighborhoods east of the Tigris River; Al-Nadhaal, Al-Saadoon and Abu Nawas. The soldiers maintain checkpoints outside of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Palestine Hotel, a seedy hangout for western journalists.
At night, almost like clockwork, loud cracks from an AK-47 rifle echo through the neighborhood. Mounted on makeshift Humvee gun trucks, soldiers dash into the streets looking for the shooter. Locals point directions from windows, but the soldiers wind through the back streets searching in vain.
A group of men claiming to be local police squat outside their station and only shrug when troops ask where the shots were fired.
The platoon had just arrested five men for carrying weapons. Another man soldiers captured allegedly had held a butcher’s knife to the throat of a homeless child outside their compound.
“Every day we arrest someone, and it’s getting closer to being better,” Salas said. “When we stop hearing gunshots, our job will be done.”
A few nights before, 1st Platoon had its first night patrol. The troops were to check a couple of gas stations and then walk through the slums looking for thieves or curfew violators, said 2nd Lt. Kurt Muniz of Brooklyn, N.Y.
The platoon began walking through a rundown filling station at 1:30 a.m. Several vagrants slept beside an old truck, but were causing no harm.
Pfc. Chris Miller, 21, of Jackson, Mich., shined the flashlight mounted on his M4 assault rifle into dark corners and behind fences. Fear hid in the back of his thoughts, but an adrenaline rush kept him focused, Miller said.
“I try to keep my mind open, and be ready for anything,” Miller said.
As they rounded the back of the station, several whistles blew in a dark neighborhood nearby.
“That’s to let the bad guys know we’re coming,” Staff Sgt. Dale Hall told his troops.
First Platoon then headed to a neighborhood where gunshots are heard nightly. Again, the troops dismounted from Humvees. They filed in a staggered column down a filthy street lined with four- and five-story buildings, scanning the darkened windows and probing into alleys.
The three heavy-machine gunners and three Humvee drivers waited in the empty avenue for a call that the dismounted squad needed either help or a lift.
As the patrol disappeared down a dark side street, Sgt. Guarionex Amador, 29, of the Dominican Republic lit a cigarette and adjusted his M240 machine gun that rested on sandbags above the Humvee’s canvas roof.
Spc. Lonnie Russel of Wisconsin lifted the hood to work on a mechanical problem that was causing the Humvee to not start properly.
Muniz, walking down the center of the street, flashed hand signals to Hall at the column’s lead. Hall stepped lightly around corners, checking first with the end of his rifle.
But anyone could know the troops were coming. Tankers are not used to walking on darkened streets.
They kick over scraps of metal and step on glass, noises that echo through the alleys.
During a quickened pace to track a curfew violator, Hall tripped over a large piece of metal and landed flat on his face, sending out a noise as loud as a gunshot.
And packs of stray dogs bark out their warning when soldiers are still several blocks away.
Still, Hall turned one corner into a well-lit parking lot and faced an Iraqi with an AK-47 assault rifle. The man, who claimed to be security for the lot, and two other Iraqis found themselves surrounded by soldiers. The man told the troops he thought they were “Ali-baba” the colloquial term for thieves.
“He dropped his weapon,” Hall said. “If he’d hung on to it one second more, I would have shot him.”
Despite the man’s pleas, Muniz confiscated his rifle and ammunition. Locals are allowed to keep such weapons, but the man had pointed it at U.S. troops, Muniz said.
They finished their patrol by 3 a.m., and quietly climbed aboard the Humvees, thankful that the night’s work had come to an end.
“Everybody has one thing on their minds,” said Staff Sgt. Eddie Jones, 29, of Columbus, Ga. “We do what we have to do to get home alive.”