‘They hate Saddam … they hate Americans’
Iraq’s fertile crescent, a scenic slice of waving fields of grain and palm groves just south of the capital, is, at first glance, an idyllic stretch of countryside.
But behind the elegant reeds and rolling berms lies one of Iraq’s most entrenched and stubborn insurgencies.
The area, which is secured by the 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment of Fort Carson, Colo., is thought to be home to several prominent insurgent groups, including al-Qaida in Iraq, extremist group Ansar Al Sunna and several fringe groups such as the unambiguously named “Death Company” and “Islamic Anger Group.”
Since March, soldiers with the unit, operating out of Forward Operating Base Falcon, have patrolled the routes daily, peering into holes and through tall grasses as though participating in a demented Easter egg hunt — though the loot here often includes 500-pound bombs, many of them salvaged from munitions caches from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
“This area’s always been volatile,” said squadron commander Lt. Col. Ross Brown. “For everyone. These guys fought Saddam. They fight us. They fight Iraqi security forces.”
The area is the scene of nearly 100 attacks monthly. A map in squadron headquarters charts each with a pushpin. The main roads aren’t visible under the mass of brightly colored pins.
Twelve soldiers from the squadron have died after bomb attacks on the sector’s deadly roads. Seventy-five percent of the squadron has earned combat action badges, Command Sgt. Maj. Glen Dailey said.
The area has been given scant attention since U.S. forces entered Iraq in 2003, although insurgents in the area have been linked to attacks in Baghdad.
“We were pretty much the first forces to have a regular presence here,” Brown said.
Unit officials say attempts to interact with local leaders have been met with wariness.
A linguist with the unit, Spc. Kais Escotto, 25, said he’s received mixed reactions from locals.
“Some people, they like us, some people, no,” he said. “I don’t understand what they want exactly. They hate Saddam Hussein but at the same time, they hate Americans.”
“We have had people who were helping us in the past just disappear,” said Capt. Ben Crombe, squadron intelligence officer. “We’ve seen children placing [roadside bombs]. We saw a 14-year-old girl place a [bomb].”
The unit has worked closely with Iraqi forces to attempt to make the area safer. While progress has been made, “It needs a long time,” Iraqi Brig. Gen. Amer Hassun, commander of the Iraqi Army’s elite Wolf Brigade, said through an interpreter. “I cannot specify the time. A lot of things need to be done. We also need equipment for the Iraqi military. Probably the terrorists have better equipment than us.”
Many rank-and-file soldiers — many of whom go on lengthy daily patrols — say their trips outside the wire take a toll.
“It hasn’t been easy,” said Spc. Matthew Capo, 21, of Colorado Springs, Colo. “The lower enlisted guys are working their hearts out.”
But many soldiers say the experience, while difficult, has been worthwhile.
“I’ve gone from being a little kid playing in a man’s world to a young man,” Capo said.
Other soldiers, like Escotto, say they’ve become inured to the constant threats.
“I’ve gotten used to it,” he said. “Maybe the first or the second time I was scared. But now I’m used to it.”
Dailey offered praise for the young soldiers who frequently risk their lives outside the wire.
“I can’t overemphasize how courageous these guys are,” he said. “Some of these guys have been hit, blown up, that doesn’t stop them. They go out there and do their job and come back with a big smile on their face.”