In Place of Gunfire, a Rain of Rocks
"Thank you," Volesky shouted to them in Arabic. "Thank you very much."
Then he said, "Let's go talk to those guys."
As soon as Volesky left the ruined station, he was confronted by crowds of children and a few men working in a strip of auto repair shops next door. They wanted to know why their electricity was off more often than on, something U.S. soldiers struggle to determine on a daily basis. Electricity in Baghdad's summer heat means air conditioning, and a cooler population is a happier one.
"We've started fixing your sewers," said Volesky, who had just passed a pipeline project that will pump some of the green sludge from the streets. "Soon you'll see it coming this way."
The children gathered in a rowdy scrum around the soldiers. A chubby kid poked at them, then opened his mouth to wiggle a very loose tooth in their faces. A gunshot popped in the near distance, putting the soldiers on alert. A thin, dark child dressed in filthy clothes began to chant, "Moqtada, Moqtada, let's go, let's go, Moqtada." Others joined in, shuffling their feet in a two-step dance.
As the soldiers packed into Humvees and pulled away, stones clattered against the armor.
"That's all you got, just those little pebbles," said a soldier driving one of the Humvees.
Sgt. Timothy Kathol, 24, of Amarillo, Tex., handed a bag of lollipops up to the gunner as the stones continued to rain down. "They throw rocks, we throw candy -- really hard candy," Kathol said. "With sticks in it."
Battle to Provide Basics
Sadr City, home to at least 2 million poor people, has been a miserable place for decades. President Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led government deprived the Shiite neighborhood, once a pocket of political resistance, of most basic services. Reliable electricity, working sewers and clean drinking water have always been scarce.
When U.S. troops toppled Hussein last year, the neighborhood celebrated. But now U.S. troops working to improve basic services appear to be bearing the blame for a grim history. In their view, the people seem unwilling to help themselves.
"I love the smell of sewage in the morning," Kathol said as his Humvee left Camp Eagle, the Army post on Sadr City's northern edge, and was engulfed by the slum's signature stench.
"Smells like victory," replied Pfc. Joseph Crosier, 23, of Syracuse, N.Y., continuing the reference to a speech in the movie "Apocalypse Now."
In the movie, napalm smelled like victory. The smell in the Humvee was coming from a large, swampy pond of sewage where people were bathing in the intensifying morning heat.
In earlier years, roving animals were let loose on large piles of street-side garbage. Today, sheep still graze on median-strip trash, and a hundred fires reduce what remains into black, greasy piles, casting a hazy pall over the streets.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Children, the vanguard of the new resistance in Sadr City, taunt and throw stones at U.S. soldiers patrolling with Iraqi forces.
(Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)