In Iraqi Oil City, a Formidable Foe

Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division arrived in Baiji in the fall to find the oil city an insurgent stronghold and its residents resentful of U.S. troops.
Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division arrived in Baiji in the fall to find the oil city an insurgent stronghold and its residents resentful of U.S. troops. (By Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 19, 2006

BAIJI, Iraq -- Pfc. Robyn Houston fires bursts of bullets into the air as his Humvee swerves around a pothole and lurches over a highway median. His convoy bears down on oncoming traffic, forcing Iraqi cars to swerve onto a dirt shoulder.

Roadside bombs "are really bad here!" the vehicle's commander, Staff Sgt. Sean Davis, 30, of Crestview, Fla., shouts over the gunfire and growl of the Humvee. "We're firing warning shots to get them off the road!"

It's a tactic Davis and his platoon resort to daily to avoid deadly explosions in Baiji, a Sunni Arab city long neglected by American forces and still firmly in the grip of insurgents, soldiers here say. In the first month after the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division took over security duties in northern Iraq in late fall, roadside bombs killed or wounded more than a quarter of the 34-man platoon.

Baiji has emerged as a critical priority for the U.S. military because of its importance to Iraq's oil industry, a fact underscored last month when insurgent threats forced officials to shut down the country's biggest oil refinery here, which handles 200,000 barrels a day.

But the city was virtually unknown territory when Davis's platoon -- part of Bulldog Company of the 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment -- and hundreds of other 101st Airborne soldiers were dispatched into the heart of Baiji for the first time last fall, Army officers here say. The knowledge deficit has proven to be deadly.

Like many small cities and towns in Iraq, Baiji, with a population of about 60,000, has long festered as an insurgent haven while U.S. commanders concentrated their limited forces in large cities such as Baghdad and Mosul. Previous American units stayed mostly outside the city, and intelligence was minimal, officers say.

As a result, even these battle-hardened troops from the 101st, many of them veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, have fallen into the pattern of many Army units that suffer high casualties in their first six weeks in Iraq, as insurgents test them in unfamiliar terrain.

This month, Army commanders frustrated by fatalities from bombs, mines and, more recently, suicide car bombings began building up sand walls with bulldozers, digging ditches and setting up barricades to sharply restrict entry to the city. They completely sealed off a section of Baiji -- the village of Siniyah -- with a six-mile-long, eight-foot-high berm.

Meanwhile, Davis's platoon resorts to do-it-yourself tactics to try to stay safe. They scour their base for concrete, mixing it with water and pouring it into potholes where insurgents could hide improvised bombs. "I've been trying to find some Quikrete" concrete mix, said Sgt. 1st Class Danny Kidd, 36, of Fulton, N.Y., who like many in his unit is surprised by the intensity of attacks. Other soldiers have mounted shrieking police sirens on their Humvees to clear Iraqi traffic off the roads.

"It's definitely more dangerous this time around," agreed Spec. David Jones, 24, of New York, on his second tour in Iraq with the platoon. "I didn't expect to lose so many friends so soon."

Hostility on the Rise

Lying 120 miles north of Baghdad on the Tigris River, Baiji's huge industrial complex rises like a metallic jungle out of a scrub desert landscape. A town with a population that is 98 percent Sunni Muslim, Baiji prospered under Saddam Hussein, who paid favored tribes handsomely to run and protect the oil and electricity infrastructure.

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, those patronage jobs disappeared, generating hostility against American forces as well as recruits for the insurgency, Baiji residents say. Heavy-handed sweeps through Baiji by U.S. forces in 2003 and 2004 left many people angry, frightened and humiliated, residents say.

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