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Taking On Sadr City in a Pickup Truck

Four Deaths Illustrate Vulnerability of Iraqi Forces

By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2004; Page A01

BAGHDAD, Sept. 27 -- The convoy stopped in a single-file line: a half-dozen U.S. armored military vehicles and one gray Nissan pickup truck, all of them idling in a dirt lot in the insurgent-controlled slum called Sadr City.

In the pickup were five members of the Iraqi National Guard, resting up after patrolling with U.S. troops. The men sipped water in the hot midday sun. They wore bulletproof vests but no helmets as they sat in their unarmored truck.

Ahmed Khaleb, a guardsman and driver, was hospitalized after the bomb blast. His commander said civilian vehicles are "not right for the army." (Steve Fainaru -- The Washington Post)

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Without warning, an orange fireball engulfed the area, followed by a deafening explosion and then gray smoke that blotted out the sun. When it cleared, the Nissan and the Iraqis inside it were riddled with marble-size ball bearings that had sprayed from a roadside bomb.

"They're dead! All of them are dead!" shouted an American soldier who had rushed to the vehicle.

"Make sure!" shouted another. "See if any of them are moving."

"They're done," said the first, turning away. "They're all done."

Three Americans -- all gunners whose job requires them to stand partially exposed in the rear hatches of the bulletproof Humvees -- sustained wounds, though none that were life-threatening. Dozens of other U.S. troops on the scene escaped unharmed, thanks largely to their vehicles' armor.

The blast, witnessed by a Washington Post reporter riding in an armored Humvee directly behind the Nissan on Monday afternoon, demonstrated the uneven vulnerability of U.S. forces, who are equipped with the most sophisticated weaponry and armor, and their Iraqi allies, who fight the same battles using vastly inferior equipment.

Among the Iraqis, there are frequent complaints that they don't have the tools for the job. About two dozen Iraqi soldiers and would-be recruits have died in the past week in ambushes and bombings. With elections here scheduled for January, the Bush administration has staked its hopes for the country on Iraqis assuming increasing responsibility for security.

Asked if a Nissan pickup afforded sufficient protection in Sadr City, where more than 100 roadside bombs exploded last month, Capt. Haider Yehya, the commander of the Iraqi guardsmen, responded: "No. Those vehicles, those are civilian vehicles. They're not right for the army."

The Iraqis who died were Amar Ali, 22; Walid Younes, 28; Sabah Mujed, 25; and Thamer Ali Majed, 20, according to Yehya. Despite the American soldiers' initial fear that everyone in the truck had died, there was a survivor, the Nissan's driver, Ahmed Khaleb, 25, who sustained severe shrapnel wounds to his face and leg. Khaleb crawled from the truck, soaked in blood, then collapsed in the dirt. He was evacuated to the U.S.-run Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad. There was no information about his condition.

The day began at around 11:30 a.m., when the 2nd platoon of Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion of the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, made its way up Baghdad's Canal Road to patrol Sadr City, which remains largely under the control of insurgents loyal to Moqtada Sadr, the rebellious Shiite cleric.

The Iraqis were members of the 305th National Guard battalion, which has two companies attached to the 1st Cavalry Division. The company whose men were hit by the explosion, Company C, is nicknamed "The Lions of Freedom."

The vehicles assembled at a traffic median near Sadr City's southern boundary. The convoy then made its way into the slum, steering around huge mounds of festering garbage and past narrow alleys that the soldiers eyed warily as potential hiding places for ambushers. Posters of Sadr were plastered to the sides of buildings.

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