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Sgt. Joshua Bayles, right, 24, of Grand Rapids, Mich., supervises house-to-house search in the back alleys of Baghdad, Iraq, during operation carried out by his unit, the 1st Armored Division's 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment. Minutes later, Bayles' section heard gunfire that at first sounded like it might have been on one of the rooftops above them.

Sgt. Joshua Bayles, right, 24, of Grand Rapids, Mich., supervises house-to-house search in the back alleys of Baghdad, Iraq, during operation carried out by his unit, the 1st Armored Division's 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment. Minutes later, Bayles' section heard gunfire that at first sounded like it might have been on one of the rooftops above them. (Franklin Fisher / S&S)

Sgt. Joshua Bayles, right, 24, of Grand Rapids, Mich., supervises house-to-house search in the back alleys of Baghdad, Iraq, during operation carried out by his unit, the 1st Armored Division's 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment. Minutes later, Bayles' section heard gunfire that at first sounded like it might have been on one of the rooftops above them.

Sgt. Joshua Bayles, right, 24, of Grand Rapids, Mich., supervises house-to-house search in the back alleys of Baghdad, Iraq, during operation carried out by his unit, the 1st Armored Division's 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment. Minutes later, Bayles' section heard gunfire that at first sounded like it might have been on one of the rooftops above them. (Franklin Fisher / S&S)

In a Baghdad neighborhood, soldiers with the 1st Armored Division’s 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment break in a door during a search for illicit weapons Friday. The sweep was part of Operation Iron Hammer, launched by the U.S. military last month to counter insurgent guerrilla attacks.

In a Baghdad neighborhood, soldiers with the 1st Armored Division’s 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment break in a door during a search for illicit weapons Friday. The sweep was part of Operation Iron Hammer, launched by the U.S. military last month to counter insurgent guerrilla attacks. (Franklin Fisher / S&S)

Spc. Eddie Meek of 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division, checks a home for illicit weapons during a house-to-house “knock-and-search” operation in Baghdad on Friday.

Spc. Eddie Meek of 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division, checks a home for illicit weapons during a house-to-house “knock-and-search” operation in Baghdad on Friday. (Franklin Fisher / S&S)

Soldiers with the 1st Armored Division’s 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment eye the interior of a home in Baghdad as their unit conducts a search for illicit weapons Friday.

Soldiers with the 1st Armored Division’s 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment eye the interior of a home in Baghdad as their unit conducts a search for illicit weapons Friday. (Franklin Fisher / S&S)

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The men playing cards in the cool night air looked up as the combat vehicles rolled into their neighborhood.

The Americans, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, began uncoiling razor wire to seal off the area.

The troops from the 1st Armored Division’s 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, were in the central Rusafa district to conduct a house-to-house search for contraband weapons and ammunition. With them were 22 soldiers of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.

In all, some 250 troops and 44 combat vehicles were involved.

The operation, which lasted four hours, was part of a broad effort to keep the pressure on the insurgent guerrilla network that made November the deadliest month for U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq since the war began.

Troops also had the addresses of three suspects sought in attacks on coalition forces.

“This is one of the most dangerous sections of Baghdad,” one platoon sergeant had said earlier. “If we’re gonna see contact, tonight is the night.”

It was a night of surprises and more.

It afforded a clear picture of the kind of war the Iraq conflict has become. It showed the risks and challenges U.S. forces face as they cope with urban guerrillas, rather than big conventional land forces.

Sgt. Joshua Bayles, 24, of Grand Rapids, Mich., led his Scout Platoon Bravo down a narrow side street to its assigned area. On this night, his unit consisted of six Americans, two Iraqi soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter.

Bayles held a copy of a satellite map showing the buildings they’d be searching. They worked in a twisting warren of narrow back alleys walled in by old stone and brick buildings three and four stories high.

Sagging electric wires ran overhead between buildings, and now and then a large rat darted in the shadows. The smell of human waste hung in the air.

They moved cautiously down the alleys, scanning the upper stories with flashlights attached to their weapons.

At each door on their “knock-and-search” list, the troops used the same method. They knocked, and the interpreter told the occupants the troops would check for excess weapons and contraband. Occupants are asked to tell at the outset what weapons, if any, they have.

“Hey, interpreter, come tell these people to open up,” Bayles called out from one house.

In most houses, the only light was from small gas lanterns. The troops relied heavily on their flashlights.

Treading lightly

Two soldiers go in first and begin a floor-by-floor search for any spot that might hide contraband. Two more follow.

Two others stay outside to guard the entrance and to keep radio contact with the command. And they bar anyone from passing through a search area until the troops are finished with those houses and have moved on.

In each home, the soldiers moved the occupants into a single room while the search was under way. An exception was one house where at least a dozen children, including babies, were bundled up asleep in various rooms.

Bayles has learned to avoid waking babies.

“Don’t wake these babies up ’cause they freak,” he told the troops.

Inside, the soldiers opened closets, rummaged through drawers and climbed crumbling stone stairs to check the rooftop.

“Be careful,” the interpreter called up in one building as the troops started up a cramped stone staircase. “This building is very old building. More than 100 years old.”

When a house was searched, a soldier spray painted a C to indicate it had been cleared. If vacant and the troops opted to bypass it, they sprayed an X.

They had the option of forcing the door — a “hard breach” — if they thought a house was suspect. They put a lock on the door when they left. This time they breached only one door.

The Iraqis are allowed to keep two weapons in their homes for self-defense. “Special weapons” — rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, machine guns and explosives — are forbidden.

Those caught with these types of weapons could face 15 years in prison.

“Let him know we’re not here to take his money,” Bayles tells the interpreter at another house. “Just, any weapons? Tell me. AK-47? RPG? Pistol?”

An absence of hostility

At no point during the night did the Iraqis in their homes show hostility to the Americans.

In one house, two women appeared wide-eyed and tense with fear. But most, including women and children, seemed to take the searches in stride.

“What I did notice is the children, they didn’t cry, they didn’t feel threatened by us,” said Spc. John Lawton, 37, of Hampstead, N.H., a gunner who worked as the radio operator for the night’s operation. “We must be doing something right.”

Some thanked the Americans for their efforts.

At one house Bayles asked a question through the interpreter.

“Ask him if he knows any bad people in the neighborhood, anybody who’s causin’ trouble,” Bayles said.

“He says, ‘We have no information about anybody. We have the door closed all the time,’” the interpreter replied.

“OK sir, that’s great,” Bayles said to the man of the house.

Then an elderly woman in black stepped forward.

“She says, ‘You are doing this to help us. We must cooperate with you.’”

Interrupted by gunfire

At 9:18 p.m. the troops were at the end of a narrow alley, where a group of Iraqi women watched them from a second-story window.

Suddenly, the troops heard a strange, metallic noise, similar to gunfire but sounding more like several sets of steel shutters being pulled open and shut repeatedly.

A long moment later that rattling gave way to the unmistakable sound of machine-gun fire. It sounded close enough to be on the rooftops above them, and the Bravo troops pulled back several yards, tense, uncertain, weapons ready.

“Get accountability! Get accountability!” Bayles said as he called the names of several soldiers: “Hey — we got Keeper? Lawton? Fisher? … Hey, we’re holdin’ here until we figure out what’s goin’ on.”

The firing subsided.

“They just called for a medic. Somebody’s hit,” one soldier said.

Minutes later, Bayles gets an update over the radio.

“Awright, listen up,” he said. “A car tried rollin’ into the checkpoint and they opened up on it. They said keep your composure. It wasn’t nothin’ in our neighborhood,” Bayles told his people.

When things settled, Bayles moved the troops down the alley to resume their searches.

They later learn how close the gunfire was, some 50 yards off on the other side of the buildings they searched. An insurgent drove a stolen car at high speed straight into the street where the soldiers had set up a temporary command post.

The car, coming in at about 60 miles per hour, ran through several rolls of razor wire. Turret gunners fired on it. One of the car’s occupants started firing an AK-47 rifle, green tracer rounds issuing from the speeding vehicle and ricocheting everywhere.

With its tires now flat, the car went forward on its rims in a shower of sparks and a trail of tangled razor wire. It continued up the street, leaking gas, chunks of metal breaking away in a storm of fire from M240B and .50-caliber machine guns. The car reached the end of the street before it halted and burst into a ball of flames. Both occupants were dead.

Four Americans were wounded. Three had shrapnel wounds and returned to duty the next day. The other was due back the day after that.

Surprise catch

Then came more surprises. One of the car’s occupants was one of the suspects troops were looking for. He turned out to be a member of Fedayeen Saddam, an insurgent group playing a role in the guerrilla attacks on coalition forces, said Maj. Paul Kreis, the battalion’s operations officer.

“We got a much bigger fish than we bargained for,” Kreis said later.

At about 12:10 a.m., the search was about over. The battalion searched 150 houses and recovered several weapons.

Bravo section started for the Humvees. For four hours they’d had to be all business. But toward the end, it was the local rat population that brought a classic flash of GI humor.

“That’s a big-ass rat there,” Bayles had said.

“Where?” a soldier asked.

“It just ran in there” through a grate in the front of a building. That led to talk about how rats, not cats, rule the alleys.

A few minutes later, as they’re wrapping up in the alleys, a cat snarled fiercely.

“The rat’s eatin’ the cat again,” someone quipped in the darkness.

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