Weapons sweep in Baghdad market produces little
Stars and Stripes June 13, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — This was a mission in which the chaplain went along — just in case.
Early on Thursday, roughly 250 soldiers of the 1st Armored Division raided one of the busiest downtown marketplaces in their first Operation Market Sweep, searching street vendors for weapons and drugs and trying to give order to the chaotic open-air bazaar.
“With an operation this large, and a chance of possible casualties, a chaplain always comes along,” said Maj. Bryan Walker, chaplain to the 1st Brigade of the 1st AD.
Operation Market Sweep included cracking down on the black market arms sales: Vendors sometimes conceal weapons under kiosk blankets or ankle-length robes, commonly worn by men and women in the Middle East.
Touted at first as “a huge, huge operation” by some soldiers, in the end, the mission wasn’t all that.
The net return: a duffle bag filled with likely stolen medications and vitamins, boxes of medical supplies such as beakers, and three arrests: two for impeding police operations, and one for drug possession.
But it’s a start, said Lt. Col. Vic John, task force commander of the 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment.
“We’re here to organize the market,” John said of the Ba’b Shrje, or “door to the East,” marketplace in a section of the city called Rustafa.
That meant getting vendors peddling goods from watches and sunglasses, to prune juice, clothing and electronic spare parts, off the roadways, where they lure passing motorists to buy their products.
It also meant dealing with buses blocking off a lane or two, snarling traffic. Causing further havoc were motorists who turned two-lane roads into five, drove on sidewalks or risked on-coming traffic to circumvent the bottleneck.
With Bradlee fighting vehicles setting up around 2 a.m., and platoons of Humvees arriving around 8 a.m. for security, the Army’s descent on the marketplace wasn’t exactly a stealthy one.
“We wanted to get our soldiers in place before the market gets cooking,” John said.
And the search was on.
Armed soldiers cleared a path for Staff Sgt. Eugene Sielagoski and his partner, Bob, a dog, trained to sniff out gunpowder and thus find hidden weapons. The soldiers’ weapons, because they are routinely cleaned, don’t confuse the 9-year-old German shepherd, said Sielagoski, attached to the 519th Military Police Battalion out of Fort Polk, La.
But the stifling heat got to Bob after roughly 40 minutes of sniffing boxes, buckets and blankets, and he returned to an air-conditioned sport utility vehicle to cool off.
Iraqi police officers, clad in civilian clothes but toting AK-47 rifles and armed with pistols, joined the U.S. soldiers in the marketplace sweep.
The collaboration is an integral part into restoring law and order in the city’s streets, John said.
“It’s better that we do cooperate with [the soldiers] because we can’t do anything by ourselves now,” investigator Muntaser Fadal said through a translator. “The people here are used to no police forces, and we do not have enough equipment. People are used to dealing with threats [from the former regime] and not with respect.”
Some locals told soldiers that few vendors sell in the market anymore, and most instead have moved to warehouses and abandoned buildings to trade their black market weaponry. Military intelligence supports that, John said, and in the future, the task force will be going after them.
“Part of this is the message ‘We don’t want you doing it, and if we hear you got ’em, we’re going to come and get ’em,’” said Capt. Jerry Turner, commander of the brigade’s reconnaissance group.
Some days are more fruitful than others. But the mission was nothing less than a success, as the chaplain saw it.
“I end up feeling a tremendous sense of relief when you come back, and no one got hurt,” Walker said.