Fighting the insurgents, one car at a time
January 11, 2005
BAGHDAD — Soldiers from the 58th Combat Engineer Company are fighting a war against insurgents one car at a time.
The Fort Irwin, Calif.-based unit’s Assault and Obstacles Platoon spent part of Saturday searching cars, buses and trucks at a traffic checkpoint in the city’s Mutanabbi neighborhood.
After the platoon set up near a gas station, soldiers began checking IDs of passing motorists and giving cars a quick once-over, looking for anything out of place.
“We’ll always do a cursory search on everything,” said company commander Maj. Chris Emond. “[Saturday] we spent a lot more time checking the bolo list.”
Bolo stands for “be on the lookout” and the list describes wanted cars or people. Sometimes the list is specific, other times it’s not.
“One time they said we’re looking for a green Opel,” said Humvee gunner Pfc. Jorel Abreu. “Within 10 minutes we saw like 30 of them. They’ll say ‘black BMW’ and we’ll see a thousand of them.”
Baghdad traffic, which is normally clogged during the day, grinds to a halt on the soldiers’ side of the street as they check cars against their list.
Out of the few hundred vehicles passing through, the soldiers thoroughly searched about two dozen of them.
Pfc. Anthony Sanchez said that during one checkpoint a few months back they searched about 650 cars in a three-hour period.
Saturday’s cars ranged from fairly new BMWs to indistinguishable models with missing parts and pieces held in place with rope or wire.
Emond said that they’ll often search cars that are “too brand new” or really old and beat up. The soldiers pay close attention to the vehicle occupants’ demeanor.
“If they’re looking forward, not looking at you, or shaking when you ask them for ID, these are the guys you worry about,” Sanchez said.
One vehicle they searched had three bloody handprints on it and the driver didn’t have an ID card. The day before two people in the nearby gas line were killed in a fight, so the soldiers worried that the driver may have been involved.
“[The driver] said it was traditional to sacrifice a chicken and put the blood on a new car to thank God for the gift,” Emond said.
He confirmed the tradition with the unit’s translator.
They continued to ask the man various questions on details of the sacrifice, whether he owned any weapons, and what happened to his ID.
The man told them that he had to turn over the ID while the car registration paperwork was being done.
They also tested the man for explosives residue and searched his car. He hadn’t been handling explosives or fired a weapon and the search turned up nothing suspicious.
During the entire time, Emond said, the man remained patient and friendly to the soldiers. “Throughout all the questions he wasn’t especially nervous or especially cocky,” Emond said. “He did not appear to look like a bad guy.”
The man and his bloodied car were eventually allowed to pass.
People’s attitudes toward the soldiers, he said, can also draw attention to them. “A lot of them that are comfortable with us being in the area tend to welcome it if they’re innocent,” Emond said. “They’ll happily show us their car.”
“It’s 50-50 on whether the people don't like you or do,” said Abreu. “Mainly females and kids like you. Men are the stubborn ones. They’re aggressive and cause the problems.”
Saturday’s search, as with most of their searches, didn’t turn up anything exciting, other than a man with a pistol. The man turned out to be a translator for another Army unit and was allowed to pass after checks of his IDs and weapons permit.
The soldiers do come across weapons, but most of the owners are authorized to carry them.
“Occasionally there are some,” Emond said. “Most of the ones we see are individuals with the Iraqi Police or Iraqi National Guard with valid weapons permits.”
Some, however, show up with weapons but no weapons permit. If they can establish that the person is entitled to a weapon, such as from a phone call to their unit, they’re allowed to pass.
If they can’t prove it, the soldiers keep the weapon.
Finding weapons isn’t a big surprise, but when another of the company’s platoons stopped a truck a few months back it did cause a commotion.
The truck was full of ammunition; it was being used as a mobile weapons cache, said Emond.
Even though the soldiers usually don’t regularly make big hauls, or for that matter any at all, Emond believes the TCPs help.
Because the insurgents don’t know where or when the next checkpoint is going to be set up, their attack plans may be disrupted.
The soldiers don’t know how to measure the “disruption effect” of their checkpoints, Emond said. However, he added: “We’re pretty confident that … happens.”