U.S. troops patrolling Iraqi cities face daily tests
BAGHDAD, Iraq — A fenced lot with hundreds of containers of black-market fuel. Dozens of smiling, waving children. An unexploded hand grenade. A turf battle over a motorcycle. A house that must be searched and is full of crying children and wailing women. A suspicious car. A shot in the dark.
As U.S. forces continue to sustain almost daily casualties across Iraq, each group patrolling Iraqi cities still must deal with myriad unforeseen problems. Some fraught with dangers, most not.
“Over the past two weeks, it’s been extra quiet around here,” said Capt. Roger Maynulet, commander of Company A from the Friedberg, Germany-based 2nd Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment.
Maynulet looks at a large map stuck to his headquarters wall that details the area of east Baghdad that his company has been assigned. His sector comprises two large areas: Hay al-Muthana, a group of neighborhoods consisting largely of retired military officers and other relatively wealthy citizens; and Hay Sumer, a more middle-class neighborhood bordering on an area notorious for black-market activities.
Attacks against Americans patrolling the area, so far, are rare, so rare that Maynulet is more than a little concerned, since he reads reports every day of attacks elsewhere.
And how does he reconcile those reports with his feelings in his sector?
“Good and uneasy,” he said. “Good in that I’d like to think it’s because we’re doing a good job. Concerned, because maybe people are plotting [other attacks] from here and don’t want to do something close to home.
“Or that something big is being planned. But I don’t think that’s the case.”
Still, Maynulet says he thinks it might be easy for his soldiers to get a bit complacent. So he has encouraged them to watch the television in a makeshift dining area to get a sense of what’s going on in the other areas.
Not that his soldiers aren’t encountering problems. Far from it. Because there’s wealth in the area, criminals often come in search of easy targets.
“Our main concern is Iraqi-on-Iraqi crime,” Maynulet said, referring to heavily armed criminal gangs that terrorize local residents. “They’re very observant. They try to keep track of our patrols and hit when we’re not around.”
So, this night, Maynulet is trying something different. He’s flooding the area with a large part of his resources, all at the same time. Soldiers, as always, will be on the lookout for criminal activity. But they’ll be expected to deal with all the other routine, though often-unexpected, situations they encounter.
Sgt. Dave Neuzil, who served two tours in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said, “I almost feel like in some ways it was a preview of things to come. I don’t think that anyone really knew that at the time.”
Neuzil, a member of a scout troop from the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment from Fort Polk, La., that’s currently assigned to Maynulet’s company, said he learned things in Bosnia that he can use now.
Neuzil is joined in his Humvee by Spc. Anthony Adams, the driver, and Spc. Anthony Gisi, standing in the center turret behind the machine gun. Another Humvee, commanded by Sgt. Dave Cook, follows.
Maynulet had said earlier that the numbers and types of vehicles on such patrols vary. So do the routes and lengths of the patrols and the times they’re conducted. Everything is done to keep potential attackers from figuring out the routine and setting up an ambush. And to find criminals at work.
Dealing with the mess
The first stop this night for Neuzil’s patrol is the local police station. It’s one of dozens that have reopened across the city after the Americans ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Waleed George, a translator, and Mustafa Ali Kareem, an Iraqi Police Force officer, hop aboard.
The next stop is planned, Neuzil says. On a previous patrol, they encountered a large crowd waiting to buy fuel from a dusty lot holding hundreds of containers stacked together. Some in the crowd claimed the sales weren’t being conducted lawfully.
“We didn’t have a translator, so it was hard to tell what was going on,” Neuzil says. “So I wanted to let the [Iraqi Police Force] know about it.”
Neuzil, George and Kareem get out of the Humvees, bang on the gate and wait for someone to show up. A few seconds later, there’s a four-way conversation with the employee inside the gate essentially saying nothing illegal has been going on. The three men on the outside saying they’ll be watching the place carefully.
The three get back in the Humvees and the patrol continues.
Iraq, by most estimates, is pretty much a mess these days.
Electricity is in short supply. Some are without water. People used to cheap, plentiful fuel (in a country that produces barrels and barrels of it) now wait for hours in line to fill up their cars. Many can take the time to do that, because more people are out of work than are employed.
So the frustration level is pretty high in many parts of Baghdad.
Still, the reaction that Neuzil and his soldiers get as they drive slowly past house after house wouldn’t convey that impression.
“Kids, we always get smiles,” he says. “The adults … I’d say it’s a little more divided.”
Grenades up ahead
Most of the homes have tall walls and it’s difficult to see what’s inside each yard from a Humvee. But at many houses where doorways can be seen, Iraqis come out of their homes with a smile and a wave at the Americans.
Those already sitting outside often provide friendly greetings. There are a few frowns. And there are some who try to ignore the patrol entirely and keep their faces free of emotion.
The patrol approaches an improvised roadblock: a strip of metal designed to flatten tires. The soldiers stop. Neuzil starts to ask questions. A crowd gathers.
A house a few steps down the road was hit a few nights earlier by a gang. The residents thwarted the attack with gunfire of their own. U.S. forces have authorized residents to keep a specific amount of weaponry in their homes for just such occasions.
But the neighborhood residents are still scared and angry. Many want to know why the Americans can’t be there to protect them when they’re needed. The meeting ends peacefully, though.
And the patrol continues.
Before leaving the neighborhood, the lead Humvee is waved down by a man gesturing and pointing in the distance. He doesn’t speak English, so George jumps out and translates.
There’s a grenade somewhere up ahead.
The soldiers return to their Humvees and are guided by more pointing Iraqis to an area that probably used to be a park next to a busy road. Neuzil, George and Kareem find the grenade, while the others stand guard around the Humvees. Kareem says he recognizes the grenade and that it’s not going to explode because the fuse is missing. It’s still potentially dangerous, though, so he grabs it, and they return to the Humvee.
Basic rules apply
In the meantime, a crowd of children has gathered around the military vehicles. Soldiers keep them from getting too close with a few words they’ve picked up in Arabic. The children demonstrate the few words they know in English, asking for names and — more often — money.
When the children see a camera, they all demand to have their pictures taken. It would be better to have an American soldier stand with them. So Sgt. George McGraw, a medic, obliges.
McGraw and others like him ride along with each patrol, providing medical attention if needed. So far, he says, he hasn’t had to treat any Americans.
He does, however, occasionally treat Iraqis. Many are thieves who have been overpowered by their potential victims and are then subjected to mob justice.
As the patrol moves on, Neuzil tells Adams to take a left — across a few dividers and several lanes of traffic. The sergeant acknowledges that if he saw an Iraqi vehicle driving the same way, he wouldn’t be happy.
“We tell them they should stop,” he says of such maneuvers. “It’s very dangerous,” though not in a Humvee.
Some of the cars slow down and allow the Americans to pass easily. Others aren’t so obliging.
“When we first got here, every car would drive around us,” Neuzil says. “Now we’ve got to fight through [traffic jams] like everyone else.”
Adams pulls up on a curb near the police station and the grenade is taken inside.
‘Like being on “Cops”’
Cook, the sergeant heading up the second Humvee, stays behind with several others. He soon realizes that something else must be going on, because it’s taking Neuzil longer than normal inside.
It turns out there’s a problem inside the station. An Iraqi has been stopped riding on a motorcycle formerly used by Saddam’s forces. The police have detained him and want the bike.
Neuzil, recognizing the man as someone the Americans had encountered and cleared a few nights earlier, doesn’t agree. He calls in Maynulet for support.
A little while later, the captain enters the police station, hears the situation and agrees with his sergeant. The man keeps the bike, because he has proof he paid for it. Maynulet tells an obviously unhappy Iraqi police officer that attempts should be made to track down the ones who sold the man his bike, if they are the ones responsible for stealing government property.
The exchange takes place in relative darkness, because the electricity has gone out. It’s dark now, so crossing back across the road is more hazardous — especially since many Iraqis are driving cars with broken headlights.
But Neuzil returns to the Humvees with a new assignment from Maynulet.
“It’s just like being on ‘Cops,’” he says. “Everything is big drama.”
Those words prove prophetic a few minutes later.
This house is the nicest in the neighborhood. And possibly others are envious, because the Americans have received several tips about those who live inside.
They’re Baathists — members of Saddam’s political party — it’s said. A few nights earlier, a patrol acting on a tip had raided the house. Weapons and a large amount of money was found. Arrests were made, though Neuzil isn’t sure what the end result was.
Tonight, the Americans are back. And the residents are not happy about it. The children cry, the women shriek and it’s hard to coax everyone out of the home.
Neuzil instructs George to tell everyone it’s a routine search, and they’ll be finished quickly. The translator takes most of the verbal abuse and frantic questioning from the residents, though Neuzil and his soldiers get a few angry stares.
Kareem searches through the rooms. Neuzil and Cook quickly spot a group of weapons laid out on a couch inside the second room. It’s the same handful of weapons they’d found before. After a little more conversation with the family, it’s clear that someone gave the family approval to keep them. So after a quick search, the soldiers meet the family back out in the yard.
George explains that the soldiers might be back, but no one will be arrested this time and nothing will be confiscated. Neuzil passes along his appreciation for the family’s cooperation.
Soldiers, not policemen
The patrol is winding down when Neuzil tells Adams to stop. He’s spotted a nice new car, without license plates, parked in a neighborhood that’s not so nice.
The Humvees stop, the soldiers get out and the residents looking down from a third-story balcony start a conversation with George.
Soon, all the men of the household — as well as those from neighboring homes — are gathered around the soldiers downstairs. One of them starts up the car, offers an explanation and the soldiers are satisfied.
But before the soldiers can leave, the residents start to tell them about a drive-by shooting a few nights earlier.
Someone driving a car — loosely matching the description of someone soldiers had heard of causing problems before — had gone by with guns blazing. The residents produce a child, who they say was hit in the head, and was lucky to survive. His mother was shot in the shoulder, the translator says.
The soldiers ask for a description. The residents can provide only scant information. Neuzil, seeing that he’s not going to get any details that will help catch anyone, obviously wants to get going again. But he stays a few more minutes to hear them out.
The patrol heads back to the police station to drop off George and Kareem. There, they see some agitated officers staring off into the distance. Someone has just fired a gun, they say.
Neuzil directs his patrol to proceed up a nearby alley where he suspects the gunman had gone. There are a few Iraqis in sight, but the only ones with guns are Kareem and the other policemen.
After a few minutes, Neuzil — who’s used to such fruitless chases — turns his patrol around and heads back to the station, and then on to the base camp.
Neuzil and Cook aren’t complaining about the night’s events.
“We pretty much, as far as I can tell, go out and do things the cops in the States do,” Neuzil says.
“Of course, we’re soldiers. We’re not policemen. So we just try to do the best we can.”