Foot patrols watchful of mosque, markets
January 21, 2005
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BAGHDAD — With its golden dome and four large minarets, the Jami al Kazimiyah mosque in the city’s Kadhamiya neighborhood is considered one of the Muslim Shiites’ holiest sites in Iraq.
The mosque is just a short walk from Forward Operating Base Justice, home to the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment. So, in addition to their normal patrols around their sector, battalion soldiers regularly walk the streets and markets that surround the mosque.
On Saturday morning, a few dozen Company A soldiers and local Iraqi National Guardsmen left the base and made the one-kilometer walk to the mosque.
“We try to do a minimum of one totally dismounted [foot] patrol per week [around the mosque],” said 1st Sgt. Brian Byrd. “We try to include the ING in all of our patrols … because they’ve got a vested interest [in the area] — more so than us.”
The Jami al Kazimiyah mosque is the burial site for two important Shiite imams. A shrine was built over the grave site of the seventh imam, Musa Ibn Ja’afar al-Kazim. His grandson, the ninth imam, Muhammad ibn Ali al taqi al Jawad, also is buried on the grounds.
The area is an important pilgrimage site for the Shiites, and earlier this month thousands of pilgrims traveled to the mosque for the traditional observance of the death of the ninth imam.
But it’s not just Iraqis who visit the site, the soldiers said. Many U.S. officials and media who visit FOB Justice are often taken on foot patrols in the area, which is considered one of the safer parts of the battalion’s sector.
“It’s a pretty safe area,” said Pfc. Jacob Bauer of the company’s 1st Platoon. “It’s not like you’re going out on a dismounted patrol that’s going to get everybody killed.”
“As long as you’ve got support [from the FOB], it’s not a big deal, they’re pretty friendly,” said Sgt. Alfred Pfaff about the area residents.
As the joint patrol walked down the main street between the base and the mosque, hundreds of Iraqis milled about the small shops and street vendors. Most watched indifferently as the patrol walked by and after the first few soldiers passed most returned to their shopping or resumed conversations.
These daytime foot patrols, Byrd said, are important for the soldiers and for the overall military effort in Iraq.
“The biggest thing is it breaks the monotony of constantly doing vehicle patrols,” Byrd said. “We’re light infantry, so it gets us back to basics. We can work on some skills, [such as] speed control, maintaining distance.”
The patrols avoid some of the more narrow and crowded alleyways.
“If we’re in the markets surrounded by people, it’s easy to get your throat cut,” Bauer warned.
The soldiers sometimes turn into sightseers. Heading past the mosque on a crowded — but wide — street, a few soldiers pulled out cameras.
“Yeah, we take a few pictures,” said Bauer. “We don’t go there much.”
The patrols are spread between different platoons so some of the soldiers have gotten close to the mosque only a few times during daylight hours. The battalion regularly runs vehicle patrols through the area after the 11 p.m. curfew.
Some nights, Pfaff said, soldiers will leave the Humvees and walk through the area, but never without the vehicles nearby. They don’t — or at least shouldn’t — encounter people on these nighttime patrols, so the daylight patrols are run for more than security.
“It gives us face time with the people,” Byrd said. “It shows them we’re human, too.”
The soldiers’ close interactions with the passers-by allow them to gather information on anything from people’s impressions of the upcoming elections to crime or insurgent problems in the area.
As if running in the upcoming election himself, Byrd made eye contact and gave the traditional Arabic greeting of “Peace be with you” to many passing Iraqis.
During the last half of the patrol, the soldiers stopped for a few minutes at a main intersection leading to the mosque. Most provided security as a few soldiers talked to Iraqis who were milling about. One officer quickly bought a silk scarf for his wife, and an Iraqi boy brought two Americans hot fried dough balls that tasted like a hush puppy.
Pfaff said most of the soldiers have been offered, and accepted, something to eat from area residents and businessmen. He said they limit what they eat, however, as most have concerns about the cleanliness of some Iraqi kitchens.
A few blocks later, the patrol stopped for chai, the Iraqi word for tea. Byrd and a few other soldiers talked to the tea seller through an interpreter before paying for their tea and continuing on.
Less than two hours after the patrol started, the soldiers returned to FOB Justice with a few photographs and trinkets, and more importantly, without a shot being fired.
“It’s not a training mission,” Byrd said, “but it does help us keep our focus.”