Deluge of Violence Overwhelms Baghdad
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
It's now been a month since a new security plan came into effect in the Iraqi capital; since then, violence has soared. Iraqi security forces have been criticized for being part of the problem rather than helping prevent it.
NPR's Jamie Tarabay is embedded with a joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol. She was allowed to witness only those operations just south of the city.
JAMIE TARABAY: The black platoon for the 1st Squadron of the 10th Cavalry is riding out to the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora to pick up Iraqi policemen and bring them back to a village here called Horajeb(ph) that they're meant to be patrolling.
Lieutenant Anthony Heisler(ph) says Iraqi police have never come here because the townspeople, mostly Sunni, don't like them. The separation is clear.
ANTHONY HEISLER: They think it's the highway of death going down the road into Horajeb. There's a bit of Sunni/Shia fault line, and we're right on the road that is pretty much the fault line. And you can see where Dora ends and where our town begins; it's pretty evident. And they just don't like working there be- the town doesn't really like the Ministry of the Interior, which the IPs fall under.
TARABAY: This U.S. military unit has been here for just over a month. Before that, the soldiers spent seven months in the southern regions of Babylon and Hillah, a much quieter place. Since they arrived at Forward Operating Base Falcon, Heisler's unit has lost two men and encountered more roadside bombs today than they did the entire time of their last assignment, and they've come across the sectarian killing firsthand.
HEISLER: We received a report that this fake checkpoint was going on. When they came out here they found about a handful of local national guards killed execution style. When they rolled up there were - the guys that were running this fake checkpoint, they had thrown one guy (unintelligible) up in the back of the car.
TARABAY: The team of Humvees pull into the police station at Dora where they're greeted warily by the mainly Shiite policemen.
Dora is one of Baghdad's more volatile mixed neighborhoods. Sectarian killings are rife here and the police are suspicious of strangers.
Heisler tries to break the tension with his take on the familiar Iraqi greeting.
HEISLER: (Unintelligible) baby. What's up?
TARABAY: The Iraqi police know they're supposed to go on patrol, but no one is ready. Heisler, a gregarious 22-year-old from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, manages to convince the chief officer on duty to join his men on patrol.
HEISLER: You should come!
Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)
HEISLER: I think we hit it off. You like to talk. I like to talk. It's a good time! Come on.
Man: (Speaking foreign language)
HEISLER: Come on. (Speaking foreign words) You know what I'm saying? Good time. Okay, all right. Awesome.
TARABAY: Then they claim they have no cars available. Heisler says he has room for three people. Finally, after half an hour, the lieutenant has managed to round up two policemen. They're both wearing baseball caps and sporting memorabilia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
They're going into an area that is fiercely Sunni, where Sadr is considered an enemy. His Mahdi Army is accused of being behind many sectarian killings.
As they leave the station, Heisler sees four police vehicles parked outside after the police told him they didn't have any.
HEISLER: And to get to the bottom of that would take hours. So...
TARABAY: Driving to Horajeb, Heisler admits he's nervous about what could happen when the Iraqi police make their first-ever foray into this area they consider enemy territory.
HEISLER: Jamie, I'll be completely honest with you because that's what I do. This patrol has the makings of, if you add it all up, it could be a complete disaster. I'm not going to lie. We got a - we're taking Iraqi police into a town they never ever go to, that they're really afraid to go to.
And, you know, now there's other eyes watching. So just bear with us, sit back, enjoy the ride.
TARABAY: Once they hit the main dirt road of Horajeb, the unit stops and the soldiers get out. Fanning out 10 yards, then 20, looking for explosives hidden in the tall grass or tucked between rubbish collected in the old craters of previously detonated roadside bombs - what the U.S. military call IEDs - and then they begin walking. Specialist Christopher Magli(ph), over 6 feet tall with striking blue eyes, says his biggest indicator of danger is when the street is empty.
CHRISTOPHER MAGLI: When there's not that many people walking around it's usually bad. You can tell something's going to happen. Like the day we got attacked the other day, there was nobody out here and it was like 10:00 in the morning. We knew something was going to happen, and sure enough something happened.
TARABAY: The Iraqi lieutenant quickly makes friends with some of the locals, pausing to sit under a tree and pleading for water. It's hot and he doesn't want to go on. Saba Mulah(ph), the 20-year-old policeman with Sadr on his watch, is afraid his flak jacket doesn't protect him from roadside bombs, but says he's feeling much more relaxed about being in Horajeb now that he's here.
SABA MULAH: (Through Translator) It's going well. I'm happy with this nice atmosphere. It's a good feeling.
TARABAY: Further up the road, some men are digging a ditch in front of a brick house. The owner, a rotund man called Shahlan Sigar(ph), is sweating in the heat, his white tunic filthy. Clutching his worry beads(ph), he says they'll use the water for household chores since their water supply has been cut off and so has the electricity.
SHAHLAN SIGAR: (Through translator) We don't have electricity. They cut us off. What do we have to do with anything? There are days when we don't get any at all. This isn't right. People are too afraid to do anything. If people come to fight here and leave, why are we punished?
TARABAY: Sigar is complaining about insurgents who come to Horajeb to rig the main road with bombs to strike when U.S. patrols like Heisler's pass through. There's an ongoing standoff between Horajeb and its nearest town, Abu Schper(ph), where the insurgents are believed to escape to. Sigar says he welcomes the Iraqi police in the area as long as they stay.
Heisler is relieved the Iraqi police seem to be accepted here.
HEISLER: This is actually going a lot better than I thought. That bakery was raided as a suspected part of an IED cell in this town. So luckily that they're happy; they were talking to him. Hopefully, they weren't trying to intimidate him or something.
TARABAY: But he also knows that a major reason things went so smoothly this time is because his unit was there, too. The plan is to keep returning with the Iraqi police until both the police and the townsfolk feel confident enough to trust each other. The plan is eventually the Dora-based police are supposed to set up a police station in Horajeb. But before that can happen a lot more Iraqis will have to join these patrols.
Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.