In Place of Gunfire, a Rain of Rocks
A couple of months ago, during the Sadr uprising, the battalion launched Operation Iron Broom -- a street-cleaning, garbage-collection program that cost several hundred thousand dollars. It was carried out by U.S. soldiers at a time when their colleagues were being wounded in the same streets by Sadr militants. After days of tedious work, many of the streets were as clean as they'd ever been and large steel dumpsters dotted the medians, soldiers recalled.
Within days, the dumpsters had disappeared. Neighborhood residents had cut off the lids for use as garage doors. They sold the rest for scrap in ramshackle stalls piled with mufflers, gas tanks and other debris. Soldiers have since helped build concrete receptacles in the medians, but there is far more trash outside them than in. A public awareness campaign on how to use them is being prepared.
"If they spent half as much time on trash cleanup and these projects as they do trying to blow us up, this would all be fixed by now," said Crosier, who has been hit by three roadside bombs and suffered severe burns.
Taking the Community Pulse
On a recent morning, Lt. Raymie Walters headed out with Alpha Company's 3rd Platoon to take some popular soundings. The soldiers and the military intelligence officers back at the post use a variety of unscientific methods to measure the sentiments and general health of the community. Security, quite literally, has to do with the price of eggs.
Walters, 26, of Longview, Wash., took a column of Humvees to a market to check on food prices, which often fluctuate with insurgent activity. The convoy pulled up to a stall and the soldiers got out. But they had no interpreter. After a few minutes of holding up Iraqi dinars, pointing to produce and flapping like a chicken, Walters had his price list.
The children emerged from nowhere. "Moqtada, Moqtada," they began taunting.
Staff Sgt. Matthew Mercado, 27, of Jonesboro, Ark., shook his head as the Humvees pulled away. "You see what happens when we just ask for the price of a banana?" he said.
The convoy sped down a wide avenue. Down small alleys, scurrying kids came into view with rocks in their hands. A stone bounced short of the Humvee, leaping up to peg the door. Walters told Mercado to radio the rest of the convoy with a warning for the gunners to keep low.
That evening, U.S. commanders drew up plans for a foot patrol, matching a platoon of U.S. soldiers with two squads of Iraqi National Guard troops. The mission entailed setting up ambush positions along the road leading from camp into the center of Sadr City, a route where roadside bombers frequently operate. There they would wait for the men planting the explosives or flush them out by using illumination rounds to draw fire. But the mission was delayed an hour, then canceled. U.S. commanders said the Iraqi troops refused to participate.
"They don't want to work," said Lt. Derek Johnson, 25, of Driggs, Idaho. "But they still want our money."
Johnson, commander of Alpha Company's 1st Platoon, had a long morning ahead of him the next day policing the police. As Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Humvees idled, he and his men waited for 15 Iraqi soldiers to join the patrol, then waited even longer for a "psy ops" team with anti-Sadr pamphlets to hand out.
The Iraqi soldiers piled into two Bradleys, carrying AK-47 assault rifles and wearing new body-armor vests. They took turns tapping each other on the chest plates as they waited to leave.
Johnson's task was to make sure the Iraqi police had set up checkpoints in designated spots and were manning them without help from Sadr's Mahdi Army militia or any other civilians. The first intersection was empty of police, and the second was being worked by a group of men wearing matching blue-and-white soccer jerseys. They had whistles. The drivers obeyed them. But they were not the police -- who sat inside their station a block away -- and were likely Sadr militants.
"We're from the neighborhood," said one sweaty man in a Tommy Gear cap.
"According to their interim government, it's not allowed for any uniformed personnel other than Iraqi police to man these checkpoints," Johnson warned through an interpreter. "I'll be coming back here, and I don't want to see them."
Johnson did return a few hours later. The men had not left.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company