Patrols turn ugly on Baghdad's Haifa Street
BAGHDAD — Until last week, the world knew little about Haifa Street. Then came the spectacular car bombs in front of the Iraqi police station, and suddenly, Haifa was Iraq’s newest war zone.
But to the soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 9th Cavalry Regiment, who must patrol the sector that includes Haifa Street, that area has been an all-out war zone for months.
In fact, soldiers with the 1-9 Cav don’t call it Haifa Street. To them, it’s “Grenade Alley,” or “Purple Heart Boulevard.”
In Baghdad, “there are two areas that are highly contested,” said Capt. Chris Ford, commander of the 1-9’s Company C, “Sadr City and here,” in the Haifa area.
“Every time we go out, we expect contact,” said Staff Sgt. Jimmie Thomas, a platoon sergeant for Company C, 1/153rd Infantry of the Arkansas National Guard, which is attached to the 1-9 Cav.
“Almost anything you do out there is movement to contact,” Thomas said. “Presence patrols, whatever. You’re expecting to get hit.”
More than half the company’s soldiers have qualified for Purple Hearts, and Thomas knows personally just how “getting hit” feels.
He was on a mission just two weeks ago, which ended in an hours-long firefight, with six of the platoon’s soldiers, including Thomas, wounded by grenades. Thomas took shrapnel in the neck and a leg.
A Haifa mission on Sunday afternoon was shorter and less lethal, but not without incident.
Company C was originally directed to conduct a dismounted patrol that would begin in Tallil Square (“one of the more dangerous areas” in the Haifa sector, Ford said) and end a mile or so away, at the police station where a bomb went off last week.
Just as the convoy was leaving Forward Operating Base Headhunter, Ford got a call to stop everything, unload the troops, and return to the Tactical Operations Center for new instructions.
As it turned out, when he returned to tell his troopers to “mount up,” the mission had changed. The foot patrol was still a “go,” but local Iraqi police forces were working on a “snatch-and-grab” of an insurgent, and the unit’s soldiers were needed to assist, if necessary.
Off the convoy went, with most of the Bradleys heading for Tallil Square.
All went well for about a minute, until the hatch dropped on the fighting vehicles. The troopers dashed out. They established a perimeter, and then began to move down an alley.
No sooner had the patrol gone about 100 meters when “It turned into World War III out there,” Ford said.
For the next 90 minutes, “We had contact the majority of the mission,” Ford said.
In addition to “direct fire, grenade attacks and all types of harassing (fire) ... we were taking well-aimed shots from well-trained individuals,” he said.
Yet this time, Company C was lucky: No one was hurt.
In fact, on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the worst possible day, Ford rated Sunday’s mission “about a six.”
But it hasn’t always been such a “good” day for the unit, which has responsibility for most of the patrols on Haifa Street. Some 60 out of the 118 men in his company have qualified for Purple Hearts, Ford said.
And the 1-9 Cav has had three soldiers killed in action since arriving in March, said Maj. Chris DeGaray, the 1-9’s executive officer.
Located in central Baghdad, just a few miles from the tightly controlled and patrolled International Zone where U.S. Embassy and other coalition personnel live and work, Haifa Street and its surroundings are a mix: Sunni and Shia Muslims living and working together.Like many places in Iraq, Haifa Street acts as a dividing line between the “haves” and the “have nots.” On one side are the British Embassy, a revered Islamic cemetery and nice homes.
On the other: poverty.
The stench of garbage and untreated sewage permeates the street. Piles of trash are everywhere. Houses and apartments on the poor part of Haifa Street are crumbling, some from the effects of last year’s war, but most from neglect.
It’s a perfect place for insurgents who need cover from powerful American weapons, because “it’s a labyrinth in there,” Ford said.
“There are winding alleys all over, no rhyme or reason to the streets, and no clear shots” for anyone trying to fight back — especially with a population of more than 100,000 civilians crammed into the same area.
“It’s classic urban warfare,” Ford said.
The part of Haifa Street where Sunday’s fighting took place has always been poor and problematic, according to local Iraqis and 1-9 Cav members.
“These are the same people Saddam had problems with, but he used much more brutal tactics than we can to control them,” said Capt. Reggie Kornegay, a civil affairs officer with the 478th Civil Affairs Battalion but who is attached to the 1st Battalion, 9th Cavalry Regiment.
Nevertheless, since the end of the war, it wasn’t that bad for coalition troops patrolling Haifa Street, said soldiers from the 1-9 Cav.
“When we first got here, we walked around giving candy to kids and talking to people,” said 2nd Lt. Rick Caldwell, a Company C platoon leader.
Staff Sgt. Jimmie Thomas, a Company C platoon sergeant, agreed.
“At first it wasn’t too bad,” said Staff Sgt. Jimme Thomas a Company C platoon sergeant. Thomas said his platoon has done “hundreds” of missions to Haifa Street since March.
But two months later, the situation started to change.
Insurgents began to make inroads with local Iraqis by spreading money to poor families, Kornegay said. Suddenly, people were less interested in talking to American soldiers. Residents watching passing U.S. convoys stopped smiling and began scowling.
Then, in early May, Kornegay — whom DeGaray praised for his special ability to relate to local Iraqis — and his small team were attacked on the corner of Haifa and a place known simply as Street #17.
In a five-hour fight, Kornegay was wounded in a leg by grenade shrapnel while another soldier was wounded in the stomach.
As the summer wore on, the situation worsened.
By August, 60 percent to 70 percent of his platoon’s missions to Haifa Street “were resulting in enemy contact of some sort,” Thomas said.
But even as patrols continue to turn into firefights, DeGaray said he has faith the situation will turn around, especially as the Iraqi Security Forces improve its abilities.
“The ISF has really come a long way in the five months we’ve been here,” he said Sunday. “They have grown in training and experience.”
Meanwhile, “We’re going to keep the pressure on,” Ford said. “We will not give (the insurgents) the opportunity to publicly, openly plan or present themselves.”