Bandits get a feel for the task ahead
Stars and Stripes June 2, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — As Lt. Col. Tom James led a convoy of Humvees through the streets of the Iraqi capital’s worst slums, he and his staff saw firsthand the many difficulties troops from the 1st Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment may face in the coming months.
The Friedberg, Germany-based battalion, known as the Bandits, will relieve the 2nd Squadron, 2nd Armor Cavalry Regiment this week.
“This gives you a perspective on the work we have ahead,” James told fellow officers over the radio, as the convoy dodged their way through Saddam City.
Mounds of trash lined the roadside. A bloated cow carcass was the first of several beasts left to rot where they died. Droves of waving children rushed toward the soldiers driving past, running through ankle-deep puddles of olive-green sludge. With thumbs up, they shouted out, “Hallo, meester! Veery good!”
“I’m wondering about these kids being so happy to see us,” said Capt. Shelby Buchly, 30, of Searcy, Ark., who commands Company C. “It wasn’t what I expected.”
As the streets narrowed, the wide Jeep-like trucks got stuck in traffic. For a few tense minutes, the thought crossed their minds just how dangerous stopping among a crowd could be.
“Urban navigation isn’t always what we think it is,” James said, his voice crackling over the military radio. “We’ll have to plan times to drive and where to avoid gridlock.”
The coming weeks may be the biggest challenge for the incoming troops, who are still learning their way around the city. For now, officers still have their maps out, and convoys make wrong turns.
“Once we get to know our sector, it will become our neighborhood,” Buchly said.
James’ convoy weaved its way to an abandon cigarette factory where Lt. Col. Joe Armstrong, commander of 2/2 ACR established his headquarters. The Bandits will assume control over two sectors in northwest Baghdad currently patrolled by Armstrong’s soldiers.
“You see stuff here that you won’t believe,” Armstrong told James.
Little of what the Bandits face has to do with the combat maneuvers they trained for back in Germany. As Armstrong and his staff spoke of their work, Bandit officers took notes.
The cavalry troopers are working to create an environment where civilian humanitarian aid groups can begin work, Armstrong said. The squadron developed a network of Iraqi officials to address the city’s problems, and link locals with nongovernmental organizations.
They have tackled problems from sewage-clogged gutters to paying schoolteachers.
Weapons caches are found in every neighborhood to include rocket-propelled anti-aircraft missiles. One guarded site contains radioactive cobalt, Armstrong said. Over the past month, the squadron focused on removing weapons, ammunition and unexploded ordinance from Iraqi schools.
“We’re over the hump on that,” said Maj. Marshall Dougherty, the squadron operations officer. “We declared victory on opening the schools.”
But Armstrong’s staff also warned of several difficulties they have faced.
The Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the U.S.-led organization tasked with rebuilding Iraq, has offered little guidance, Armstrong said. While troopers try to disarm Iraqis, ORHA and U.S. military police have yet to create an acceptable Iraqi police force, he said.
“After combat operations, they assumed 80 percent of the [Iraqi] police and 50 percent of their military would be able to assist us,” Armstrong said. “That simply hasn’t happened.”
Meanwhile, crime runs rampant. Severe crimes such as carjackings and reprisal killings are constant. Last week, an ambulance dumped four bodies into the street. The victims were blindfolded, gagged and shot in the head, Armstrong said.
Some violence, often in the form of hastily organized hit-and-run attacks, is directed at troops. Recently, cavalry troopers gunned down attackers identified by prison tattoos as Fedayeen paramilitaries.
Once the Bandits set patrols and checkpoints, they must find local leaders for neighborhood councils that will report concerns of the community. Under an ORHA deadline, the councils must be formed in June 7.
“You build a police force, form a government and rebuild infrastructure,” Armstrong said. “You guys are tankers, we’re scouts. None of us are experts on what were doing here.”