On a Mission In a Hard Place

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

RAMADI, Iraq --

The soldiers of Combat Outpost Iron set out to help one Ramadi neighborhood get back to normal. The troops tried to learn local tribal politics. Passed out Beanie Babies. Drank tea. Attempted Arabic.

Lt. Brian Braithwaite said he truly felt they were making a difference.

Then in early November, Braithwaite's Bradley Fighting Vehicle hit a roadside bomb filled with gasoline, setting his gunner on fire. In the muffled intensity of pulling his friend to safety, Braithwaite said he heard sounds coming from the homes of the people they were trying to help. Laughing. Cheering. Celebrating his friend's near-death.

Braithwaite's unit, the 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, has been in the capital of western Iraq's Anbar province since June. Most of the guys here can remember the moment when their frustration killed their empathy. When they no longer felt guilty about knocking down doors. No longer cared to hand out candy.

"Hearts and minds," the soldiers shrug. They joke like this often. The few Iraqis still living in Ramadi have had their homes raided and streets patrolled for three years now. Every time a window is broken, a bedroom is trashed or husbands are questioned, the glares become harsher. Compliance with U.S. troops turns to hatred.

They are only trying to get the people who lay roadside bombs and find the material used to produce them. No other goal is ever mentioned.

Roadside bombs have become too powerful for the troops to feel safe in Bradleys or tanks. Patrols are almost all on foot. This day, they walk through the garbage dump, once a farmer's field. A plank takes them across sewage, and they head toward the first house.

Bracing the weight of their gear, they run with bent knees. They hop the walls that separate the houses to avoid the streets. Roadside bombs -- a soldier lost both legs to one while crossing the intersection here a few days earlier. The ladder they carry is worthless. So they tear many of the walls down. Home to home. It takes time. They are slow.

In their first few months in Iraq, mind-numbing boredom created an itch for action. They went out to dare fire. But now they feel done, as one medic puts it. They heft on full combat gear just to step outside to relieve themselves.

Many seem to have lost their taste for TV. It shows them the news of Iraq -- which is all about the fighting in Baghdad these days. Not much is mentioned of Ramadi.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company