In Place of Gunfire, a Rain of Rocks
U.S. Troops in Sadr City Struggle to Help an Angry, Defiant Populace
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 9, 2004; Page A01
BAGHDAD, July 8 -- Preparing for a morning patrol, Sgt. Adam Brantley surveyed his perch in the gunner's nest of an armored Humvee. In front of him was a machine gun mounted on a swivel. His M-4 rifle lay on the roof next to it.
Brantley stepped down and stooped in the dust, searching for rocks the size of baseballs. He collected a few handfuls and piled them next to his rifle. His convoy pulled into the smoky streets of Sadr City.
"I don't throw unless thrown upon," said Brantley, 24, who would have cause to do so in the next few hours as rocks thrown from side streets banged against the Humvee.
In the context of Iraq's continuing violence, it is perhaps a measure of progress that U.S. soldiers working in a slum on Baghdad's barren eastern edge are feeling the sting of stones more often than bullets. Only weeks ago, U.S. soldiers were fighting -- and, in some cases, dying -- to put down an armed Shiite uprising on the same streets.
But the daily rock fights between U.S. soldiers and ordinary Iraqis, many of them children, highlight the mutual antipathy that has built up since the handover of political power to an Iraqi government. Although often-intense fighting continues in some regions, the U.S. military occupation of Sadr City, as observed in four days on patrol with a U.S. Army unit, has evolved into a grinding daily confrontation between frustrated American soldiers and a desperate population.
After 15 months of halting progress on U.S.-funded reconstruction projects, many Iraqis who once supported the U.S. invasion are resisting the military occupation, a fight that features gangs of impoverished children as an angry, exasperating vanguard. The strain of the hostility on U.S. soldiers is palpable and poses huge risks to the completion of millions of dollars in reconstruction work designed to help stabilize Iraq.
In heat that hovers near 115 degrees, troops overseeing projects to bring clean water to neighborhoods awash in raw sewage are greeted by jeering mobs. Swarms of teenagers and children pump their fists in praise of Moqtada Sadr, the Shiite cleric whose militia has killed eight soldiers and wounded scores more from the 1st Cavalry Division battalion responsible for Sadr City's security and civic improvement. In April, during an uprising in Sadr City, the division estimated that it killed hundreds of Sadr's militiamen.
Candy, once gleefully accepted in this part of Baghdad, is now thrown back at the soldiers dispensing it.
The military partnership with new Iraqi security forces appears to be foundering on a mutual lack of respect. The Iraqi police occasionally ignore U.S. orders, described as recommendations by U.S. commanders in the days since the handover, to conduct night patrols in troublesome districts and prohibit Sadr's militants from manning traffic checkpoints. The Iraqi National Guard has refused dangerous assignments, even when accompanied by U.S. troops.
Lt. Col. Gary Volesky, commander of the division's 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Brigade in Sadr City, said there was much to be done to demonstrate to the Iraqi people that the Army has come to help them. "We've been here a year and they haven't seen much progress," he said. "That's our challenge."
Volesky, an energetic commander admired by his troops, delivered that assessment one recent morning from the roof of the Karama police station. Bombed by Sadr militants in June, the two-story building appears at the moment to be defying gravity. The facade lies in rubble, and the exposed second-story floor sags like an old mattress.
Volesky was making a keep-your-chin-up visit, and the Iraqi police officers appeared surprised to see him. They escorted him through the wreckage of the building, which has no electricity and which his soldiers once took back from Sadr militants after a fierce firefight. Then he headed to the roof.
Almost at once, rocks began falling around him, skittering across the rooftop. In the distance, a young boy leaned back to throw again. But his stone fell short. "You're going to need more than that," Volesky said to the boy.
"As you can see, this is not the friendliest neighborhood," he said. But he noticed three men on a nearby street corner, gesturing for the rock throwers to leave.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company