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In Sadr City, Prowling the Danger Zone

By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2004; Page A01

BAGHDAD, Oct. 2 -- The column of armored trucks jumped the curb, cut across a dirt-and-gravel soccer field and made its way north into the maze of narrow streets.

A full moon cast shadows across Sadr City, the insurgent-controlled Baghdad slum. Headlights turned off for stealth, the vehicles crossed into a pitch-dark lot surrounded by abandoned buildings. The lot was filled with reeking garbage and clusters of glaring men.

Salakchay Monivong, 21, a Laotian immigrant, was drawn into the service by the allure of money for college tuition. (Steve Fainaru -- The Washington Post)

"Man, I don't like driving across this field," muttered Anthony Stewart, 31, a platoon sergeant from Sumter, S.C., speaking softly, glancing uneasily from side to side. "Yeah," replied the driver, Sgt. Nick Varney, 23, of Ridgecrest, Calif. "It's an easy place to get ambushed."

This Humvee crew -- Stewart, Varney and Salakchay Monivong, 21, a Laotian immigrant to the States who mans a .50-caliber machine gun -- is at the core of the U.S. military's strategy to take back Sadr City, street by fetid street.

Three times a day, four days a week, the men join a four-truck platoon that pushes into this ghetto of 2 million in search of insurgents loyal to a rebellious Shiite cleric, Moqtada Sadr. When the soldiers find the insurgents -- or the insurgents find them -- the soldiers' task is to kill them.

The mission, as viewed by a Washington Post reporter who rode along on four Humvee patrols this week, is at once monotonous, exhausting and, in moments, terrifying. This is the war as it is being fought all across Iraq: American soldiers venturing out of their bases into dangerous streets, confronting myriad unseen risks. They face improvised bombs secreted under the pavement and in unmarked vehicles, mortars and rockets fired by the hundreds, teams of insurgents using light machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. This week brought a spasm of new violence that raised the death toll of American personnel in Iraq to 1,060.

The soldiers ride for hours to the almost-continuous thump of mortar rounds being fired in the distance, but sometimes go days without seeing the enemy. Between patrols, they return to a spartan base near a blue, onion-shaped monument to the Iran-Iraq war to catch a few hours' sleep. Many doze on the hoods of their Humvees. The soldiers are so accustomed to the sound of mortars that they frequently sleep through them.

As of this week, platoons from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division had conducted nearly 3,000 patrols into Sadr City since April, according to the battalion command.

The strategy here is similar to that playing out in other restive areas across Iraq where U.S. forces hope to purge the insurgency and initiate reconstruction projects to win over the populace. Those cities include Samarra, where U.S. forces launched an offensive early Friday to drive out Sunni Muslim insurgents who had taken over the city.

"It's kind of ironic, when you think that the Garden of Eden was supposedly somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates," said Varney, steering his Humvee up a Baghdad road the military calls Route Pluto.

The day before, a remote-controlled bomb filled with steel ball bearings exploded about 25 feet from Varney's truck. It instantly killed four Iraqi National Guard soldiers riding in a pickup truck directly in front of him and splattered the armored skin of his beige Humvee with ball bearings.

At the thud of another mortar launch, Varney turned toward Monivong, whose head and upper torso stuck out of the gunner's hatch.

"Hey, Moni, look for mortar signals, like smoke, okay?" said Varney.

"Awright," said Monivong.

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