'About Five Minutes Into It, We Had to Take Over'

U.S. soldiers with the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division are accompanied by Iraqi children as they patrol the Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Shulah in Baghdad.
U.S. soldiers with the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division are accompanied by Iraqi children as they patrol the Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Shulah in Baghdad. (Photos By Chris Hondros -- Getty Images)
By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 3, 2006

BAGHDAD, Dec. 2 -- The bullets flew from every direction -- from rooftops, windows, alleys and doorways.

Soldiers from the Iraqi army's 9th Division were pinned against a wall. They were under a covered sidewalk. According to accounts from U.S. forces who were with them on Friday, a suspected insurgent with an AK-47 assault rifle aimed at them from a doorway. Pieces of concrete fell as the insurgent's fire ripped into the wall above the Iraqi soldiers.

That's when they froze.

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Kent McQueen, 37, arrived to help. As he tried to get them out, he was hit. The night-vision goggles perched on his helmet fell down his face. They were dented. He had been shot in the head. "God was definitely on my side," McQueen said Saturday.

The scene played out during Operation Lion Strike, the U.S. soldiers recalled. The goal was to capture insurgents in the Fadhil district of central Baghdad. It was the first time the Iraqi army's 9th Division was to be in complete control of an operation in the two years it has been training under the Americans. Teams of U.S. advisers remained close, but planned to leave the fighting to the Iraqis.

"It started out that way. But about five minutes into it, we had to take over," Staff Sgt. Michael Baxter, 35, said.

While the battle was in progress, U.S. military leaders had called it an "outstanding" example of Iraqi forces taking charge. They said the Iraqis captured 43 insurgents while suffering few casualties.

But interviews the following day with U.S. and Iraqi soldiers at Camp al-Rashid in Rustimayah, where they are based, painted a more complex picture.

Strengthening Iraq's police and army is the key to the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, American commanders say. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, in its report due to be released next week, is expected to recommend pulling out nearly all U.S. combat units from Iraq by early 2008 and leaving behind troops such as those involved in Friday's fight in Fadhil to train, advise and support Iraqi forces.

Although the Iraqis in the 9th Division have become more effective in the two years since they formed, American soldiers and some Iraqi leaders at Camp al-Rashid said they are not yet ready to operate on their own.

"They're basically a baby army," Baxter said. "They're just now starting up. It's going to take them a while to get the experience."

The unit, the only mechanized division in the Iraqi army, has about 4,000 soldiers.


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