Insurgency Leaves U.S. Forces Baffled
Soldiers Share Tales of Hostility and Kindness on a Shifting Battlefield
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 27, 2004; Page A20
KARBALA, Iraq -- During more than a year in Iraq, Sgt. David Taylor saw perhaps as many Iraqis through the primary sight of his M1 Abrams tank as he did face to face. But who exactly he saw still baffles him.
The salty tank commander from the 1st Armored Division worked on the edge of Baghdad's desperately poor Sadr City for much of the past year. Then, in late April, he was rushed to this city 60 miles southwest of Baghdad to help put down an armed uprising in what developed into the most difficult fighting of his time here.
One day a few months ago, his men hauled tons of topsoil into the Baghdad slum to refurbish a rundown soccer field, a children's project in the midst of a grown-up war, and something well outside a tank commander's job description. When they returned the next morning to finish the task, the soil had disappeared.
"They stole dirt, their own dirt," said Taylor, 37, a Persian Gulf War veteran from Copperas Cove, Tex. Shaking his head and staring into his lunch at a post cafeteria here, he added, "I still haven't figured them out."
Throughout the 15-month U.S. occupation of Iraq, soldiers from the 1st Armored Division worked to pacify a country recovering from decades of dictatorship and a traumatic invasion. Just as relentlessly, the war worked on them.
They faced a shifting insurgency that culminated in a 60-day fight for the Shiite Muslim south as intense as any since the war began. And over their 15 months, during which 97 division soldiers died in combat and more than 1,000 were wounded, they struggled to clarify their perception of the everyday Iraqis they believed they had come to help.
Their time here has left many soldiers, from veteran tank drivers to young company commanders, with a confused picture of the Iraqis who never took up arms against them. Many share tales of intimate kindnesses by individual Iraqis. But they also acknowledge that the tactics they used against an elusive insurgency, while killing many enemy fighters, created new adversaries among civilians caught in the crossfire.
The soldiers express uneasiness about the country's course as they prepare to depart after the June 30 handover of limited authority to an Iraqi government. It will be charted, say many street-level soldiers, by ordinary Iraqis who often appeared less determined to influence the country's future than did the insurgents who mingled among them.
"Not to be cynical about it, but we just don't know whether to trust them," said Lt. Tim Hogan, a 25-year-old military police officer from Dubuque, Iowa.
In late April 2003, the division arrived in Baghdad to carry out a "stability operation" in the aftermath of a swift war. In the first few weeks there was some shooting, mostly in neighborhoods sympathetic to the collapsed government. Soon, nation-building duties, such as Taylor's soccer stadium, consumed the soldiers. If the Iraqis were not entirely friendly partners, they were not overtly hostile, either.
But just as the everyday frustrations of military checkpoints, road closures and arrests wore down the Iraqis, roadside bombs afflicted the soldiers. Capt. Jon Dunn, 31, a company commander from Woodbridge, Va., ran into five during his time in Baghdad and became known as the "metal detector" among his soldiers. As a new year began, the battlefield was treacherous. But the insurgency had yet to fully show itself.
"Until April, it was unthinkable to come after coalition forces with an RPG," said Capt. Ty Wilson, 31, a company commander from Fairfax, Va. "Then suddenly they were everywhere."
The uprising overwhelmed perceptions formed over the previous year of nation-building, leaving the trauma of combat to define the soldiers' understanding of the Iraqis.
After weeks of fighting under cover of darkness, Lt. Jon Silk found himself in a running gun battle lit by daylight. In late May, Silk's platoon pushed into Kufa, a stronghold of the anti-American militia led by the young cleric Moqtada Sadr. The troops' mission was to test a truce declared a few days earlier, using themselves as targets.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company