Troops Always on the Lookout for Trouble in Iraq

Facing an insurgency that shows no sign of abating, American troops do what they can to secure supply routes and avert roadside bombings. The soldiers of 1-64 Armor are skilled at detecting when "something is out of place," which is often the only evidence that a bomb is waiting for them. We live a day in the life of troops in the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We begin this hour with a story about the fight against the Iraqi insurgency told from inside an American Army unit. It's been a bloody couple of weeks in Iraq. More than 450 Iraqis have been killed since the new Iraqi government was sworn in on May 3rd, and the number of US fatalities is approaching 30. So the situation is tense and the soldiers' mission dangerous and frustrating. NPR's Eric Westervelt is embedded with a unit of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. He'll be reporting on the 3rd ID all year. He sent this story from a forward operating base in southeastern Baghdad.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Before leaving the relative safety of Camp Rustimiya in eastern Baghdad for patrol, these soldiers make sure they've got extra water, Gatorade and prayer. First Lieutenant Jonah Martin(ph) and a dozen other soldiers stand in a circle between an Abrams tank and a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. They hold hands, heads bowed, as they do every time before leaving the gate.

Unidentified Man #1: Lord, as we go outside the wire once again, we pray for you to give us protection and wisdom as we go out to secure Route Pluto once again. Pray for you to give us strength through these long hours and many days.

WESTERVELT: This battalion, 1-64 Armor, was the Army's first into Baghdad in April 2003. The unit's tanks and Bradleys quickly overpowered Saddam Hussein's militia and army defenses in a series of what they called thunder runs. Today the battalion's heavy armor is being used to secure main supply routes 24-7; the Abrams tank as 70-ton deterrent to roadside bombers. Specialist Jeffrey Smith is a tank driver.

Specialist JEFFREY SMITH (3rd Infantry Division): $3 1/2 million warning sign.

WESTERVELT: What the Army calls Route Pluto, Iraqis call the Canal Road. It's a main north-south artery on the capital's east side. The patrol's two tanks and one Bradley rumble past what was once the United Nations compound. A giant chunk of the main building is missing, the result of an August 2003 suicide truck bomb which killed 23, injured 100 and drove the UN out of Iraq. First Lieutenant Martin stands in the tank commander's turret scanning the busy roadway for telltale signs of bombs, such as wires, antennas and more subtle warnings of improvised explosives.

First Lieutenant JONAH MARTIN (3rd Infantry Division): Basically when you do a route security mission, it's a matter of just knowing what's out of place. I mean, you'll patrol the same route every day for at least a week, sometimes a couple of weeks, so it's just a matter of looking and seeing if there's anything out of place, seeing if this particular block wasn't there the other day. Or even in the trash piles, which there are a lot of, you can look and tell if something's been disturbed recently.

WESTERVELT: The battalion has lost three soldiers to roadside bombs and one to a sniper's bullet since they took over here from another division in February. Nineteen soldiers have been injured in combat. Thirty-year-old Sergeant Ronald Davis was with the battalion during the invasion two years ago. Today, he says, he's not sure what he's up against.

Sergeant RONALD DAVIS (3rd Infantry Division): It's a harder war to fight now 'cause you don't know who your enemy is. That guy selling sheep on the side of the road, one day he's waving at you, and the next day he's not in his little sheep hut no more, and there's a bomb there that just blew up your buddy.

WESTERVELT: Despite some gains, US commanders still grapple to understand the many strands that make up the insurgency: how large the cells are, how they're organized, funded and just who they are. This day the soldiers park their heavy armor on the roadside. They scan and watch the constant stream of cars, buses and donkey carts. For five or six hours at a time, their eyes are glued to every movement. It's long, hard, tedious work in excruciating heat. And while soldiers try to secure the main roads and neighborhoods with weapons, the battalion's commander works toward the same end using his diplomatic skills.

Lieutenant Colonel KEVIN FARRELL (3rd Infantry Division): Thank you. Good morning, sir.

Unidentified Man #2: Good morning, sir.

Lt. Col. FARRELL: Sholem aleichem.

Sheik KAMAL JAWDA AL-KAMASI(ph) (Head, District Advisory Council): Sholem aleichem.

Lt. Col. FARRELL: How are you?

WESTERVELT: Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Farrell greets Sheik Kamal Jawda al-Kamasi, the head of one of the largest US-backed district advisory councils in Greater Baghdad. There may be a sovereign interim Iraqi government in place, but the de facto center of financial and security control here is still the US military. That means Lieutenant Colonel Farrell, not the new Iraqi government, is Sheik Jawda's go-to guy.

Lt. Col. FARRELL: What about the issues of getting the three (unintelligible) and having it in English?

WESTERVELT: After lengthy discussion of challenges facing sewer and road projects, including the recent looting of wiring from new highway lights, the sheik and the colonel face down the biggest issue: security. The last week saw a marketplace car bombing here kill 17 Iraqis and a roadside bomb kill one of Lieutenant Colonel Farrell's soldiers. Sheik Jawda, through his interpreter, blames foreigners. He calls for a crackdown on Palestinians and other outsiders in eastern Baghdad.

Sheik AL-KAMASI: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: `I told you before about the Palestinians and Arab foreigners,' the sheik says. `You should clear the area of the Palestinians and the foreign Arabs. We don't hate them; they're our brothers. But we have problems in Iraq, and they support the problems.' Lieutenant Colonel Farrell shakes his head slightly, well aware that the majority of insurgents in his area are Iraqis. He asks the sheik to help him and the Iraqi army based here to gather so-called actionable intelligence.

Lt. Col. FARRELL: Statements such as `rounding up all the Palestinians or all the Arabs,' there's nothing we can do with that. We need names, neighborhoods. And you know these areas far better than we. And without specific information, without leads, places we can go, it calls into jeopardy all of the projects that we're doing.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

WESTERVELT: Back out in the stifling heat of a combat patrol, the soldiers in their tanks swig Gatorade, scan the highway and pass the time talking about everything from family and politics to sex and sports. Sergeant Ronald Davis was scheduled to get out of the Army late last year. He had a police job lined up and was looking forward to more home time with his wife and two infant children. Then the Army abruptly halted those plans under the stop-loss clause in every soldier's contract. Now Davis is back in Iraq for 12 months or more. He's angry about it, but he's also a professional soldier.

Sgt. DAVIS: My son--a couple months ago my wife taught him how to ride a bike without training wheels. I should have been the guy doing that. And I should be the guy taking my son to softball games and baseball games and things like that, and I can't do that now because of the stop-loss issue. And it makes you bitter. You know, I can't whine and cry about it, you know, because the second I do and I take my focus off of it, somebody's going to get hurt or I'm going to get hurt or, you know, I'm going to miss an IED out there and the guy behind me's going to get hit.

WESTERVELT: `When I get off of patrol, I sit around base and smoke a lot of cigarettes,' Davis says, adding, `then I try to think up witty things to say to the Army when they thank me for my two years in Iraq.' Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Baghdad.

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