U.S. Troops Spread Thin Despite Surge

Dozens of American outposts in Baghdad were established around the city as part of a new security effort in the four-month-old troop surge. But at an outpost in the Gazalia neighborhood some 200 U.S. soldiers protect 50,000 residents.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

In this part of the program we'll visit two of the American outposts in a major city. The city is Baghdad. The outposts are among dozens established around that city as part of a new security effort. These two outposts give us some sense of how the fight is going. They are both in an area called Ghazaliya.

MONTAGNE: On the neighborhood's north side, an outpost was set up to stop Shiite militias from killing Sunnis. On the neighborhood's south side, an outpost was set up to stop Sunnis from killing Shiites.

INSKEEP: So if you're an American soldier, here are the numbers. You've got 50,000 residents in four square miles. You have to protect them with 1,400 Iraqis and 200 Americans. NPR's Anne Garrels reports on how it's working.

ANNE GARRELS: Two young captains in their late 20s are responsible for Ghazaliya. Captain Eric Peterson(ph) has been in the north since January. This is what he dealt with for the first couple of months.

(Soundbite of gunfight)

GARRELS: Now his men can go around on foot. Now, they're still weary. They are still protected by flat jackets, helmets and nearby armored humvees ready to react. On this day, they hand out school bags to kids.

Captain ERIC PETERSON (U.S. Army): Tell them don't rush up on the truck. Okay?

GARRELS: The kids don't listen. The Americans are swamped. Capt. Peterson feels like he has now contained the worse of the violence.

Capt. PETERSON: My days of getting into firefights and blowing things up are almost completely over right now. I mean, I spent most of my time out there repairing relationships that got severed between the Shia and the Sunni and then identifying projects for things that need to get worked on.

GARRELS: Captain John Brooks(ph), who commands a company just to the south, set up his joint security station in March, two months after Peterson's was established. Unlike the north, which had suffered largely from Shiite Militias, Brooks' area has been ravaged by groups affiliated with al-Qaida. They've used the area to stage attacks elsewhere in the capital. They pushed out the Shiites and terrorized the local Sunnis. They targeted anyone who opposed them. Brooks says al-Qaida is a formidable enemy.

Captain JOHN BROOKS (U.S. Army): Where their strategy really became effective in the population is, if anybody saw them doing these executions, they pulled them out of their house and executed them too.

GARRELS: Brooks set up his combat outpost on the very spot where the bodies had been dumped. The number of killings has dropped dramatically in recent weeks. Though it's still early days in south Ghazaliya, Capt. Brooks believes being on the ground makes a real difference.

Capt. BROOKS: It's a consistent presence, and that's what the troop surge has afforded us. One of the key - I'll call it the cornerstone - of, you know, how I'm going to defeat the last of the Sunni insurgents is just sheer presence.

GARRELS: Both young captains say having troops live right in the neighborhoods has dramatically improved their ability to develop intelligence. One of the people responsible for gathering that intelligence is a 21-year-old specialist. This intense young woman is part of a five-person intelligence team working in Ghazaliya.

Unidentified Woman: And the people, they feel safer. They have a - I mean, just the thought of Americans so close, being able to react so fast, is a very good advantage.

GARRELS: For security reasons, she doesn't want her name to be divulged. Her fellow team members are as young as she is, ranging in age from 19 to 25.

Unidentified Woman: A lot of the intelligence soldiers that are driving this war are very, very, very young.

GARRELS: The military taught her Korean; she has taught herself Arabic, good enough to take calls from Iraqi sources.

Unidentified Woman: Yesterday, I was talking to this guy, and he's telling me about a weapons dealer and he didn't know the name, but he found out and he called me back with the name.

GARRELS: Ghazaliya used to be an attractive middle-class neighborhood. Now it's a wasteland. Captain Peterson says his job now is to give people more confidence. And to do that, people here have to see improvements in living conditions.

Capt. PETERSON: I think if I win that fight, at least in northern Ghazaliya, I think I've won the war.

GARRELS: Every other house here is empty. Windows are shattered. Some of the houses have black Xs on their gates. This marks them as targets for extremists. Many schools were used to store arms. Most shops remain shuttered. Peterson's first success was getting rid of the trash; fetid mountains of it clogged the neighborhoods. Now that violence is down, he's able to protect the garbage collectors with his troops, but that doesn't always work.

Capt. PETERSON: The trash truck guy got attacked last week, and he was shot.

GARRELS: He still needs to get more municipal workers in to fix the phone lines, the water lines, the sewage lines. Peterson's boss is Major Dan Rouse(ph). He had to drag Iraqi officials into Ghazaliya to show the municipal workers were doing nothing.

Maj. DAN ROUSE (U.S. Army): Because they were telling me, yes, we're sucking up the sewage in Ghazaliya. And we're saying, no, you're not. And so he came on and he said, yeah, that's not happening.

GARRELS: Capt. John Brooks, who's in charge of south Ghazaliya, says he too needs help to make life more bearable. He just met a member of the U.S. civilian reconstruction teams for the first time. They're supposed to be backing him up. Brooks doesn't think he met the right guy.

Capt. BROOKS: That was the political guy. Where's my essential services guy?

GARRELS: He needs someone who knows something about power, sewage and water.

Capt. BROOKS: We've got a troop surge going on, I would love if I had a State Department surge. I would love if there is somebody that I could call for a sewage expert.

GARRELS: While the Iraqi military working with the Americans here has become more effective, Major Dan Rouse doesn't yet trust their ability to control the situation on the streets.

Maj. ROUSE: If we were to pull out tomorrow, it's not ready.

GARRELS: The American troops spend days at a time out at these Spartan combat outposts, a world away from the huge American bases. They return for just enough time to get mail, a hot shower and a decent meal.

(Soundbite of hammering)

GARRELS: Private First Class Dennis McCoy(ph) is installing air-conditioning at last, just in time for the brutal summer heat.

Private First Class DENNIS MCCOY (U.S. Army): Every room has electricity, which we didn't have before. We've got bunk beds now. We're not sleeping on cots anymore. I mean, we're not burning our own crap anymore per se. We actually have porta-potties and stuff like that.

GARRELS: Living out in these combat outposts is not without its price. Seven out of 200 soldiers based here have been killed. One platoon of only 15 men has been hit particularly hard. Lieutenant Justin Brown(ph) has been assigned to head up the unit now.

Lieutenant JUSTIN BROWN (U.S. Army): A lot of problems from home. You know, they had a few they want to combat stress. And one or two threatened suicide. I think it's coming around now. So it will just take time, just like the rest of Iraq.

GARRELS: Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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