U.S. Unit Patrolling Baghdad Sees Flaws in Bush Strategy

U.S. soldiers at Camp Ramadi in Iraq's Anbar province fill sandbags for use in defensive positions at combat outposts in the violent city of Ramadi.
U.S. soldiers at Camp Ramadi in Iraq's Anbar province fill sandbags for use in defensive positions at combat outposts in the violent city of Ramadi. (By John Moore -- Getty Images)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 12, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jan. 11 -- A few hours before another mission into the cauldron of Baghdad, Spec. Daniel Caldwell's wife instant-messaged him Thursday morning. President Bush, Kelly wrote, wanted to send more than 20,000 U.S. troops and extend deployments in Iraq. Eight weeks pregnant, she was worried.

Caldwell, a tall, lean 20-year-old from Montesano, Wash., wondered whether he would miss the birth of his child. He walked outside and joined his comrades of Apache Company, 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, Stryker Brigade. They, too, had heard the news.

Moments before he stepped into his squad's Stryker -- a large, bathtub-shaped vehicle encased in a cage -- Caldwell echoed a sentiment shared by many in his squad: "They're kicking a dead horse here. The Iraqi army can't stand up on their own."

Bush's decision to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq rests on a key assumption: that the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki can produce a well-disciplined, impartial army capable of taking the lead in securing Baghdad. U.S. troops, the president said, would now play more of a background role.

The day after his speech, the soldiers of Apache Company went on a mission to the volatile neighborhood of Hurriyah that underscored the challenges confronting U.S. troops as they attempt to clear neighborhoods of sectarian fighters and keep them that way under Iraqi control.

Across Baghdad, Iraq's mostly Shiite security forces have proved unable to keep neighborhoods secure on their own. Sunni Arabs deeply mistrust the army and police, viewing them as a sectarian weapon of the Shiite-led government. Iraqi army commanders say their soldiers lack training and equipment, while some U.S. officials worry that Iraq's troops are too dependent on their American counterparts and will become even more so with the expected surge.

The Stryker rolled through the mud of Camp Liberty and made its way to Hurriyah, a mostly Shiite area nestled west of the Tigris River. Apache Company's mission: to search a few houses for weapons caches based on intelligence reports. Caldwell and his soldiers worried about the intelligence they had been given. It had come from an Iraqi army -- or "IA," in U.S. soldier lingo -- officer a week ago. They wondered whether they were being set up for an ambush.

"It's a joke," said Pfc. Drew Merrell, 22, of Jefferson City, Mo., shaking his head and flashing a smile as the Stryker rolled through Baghdad.

"They feed us what they want," said Spec. Josh Lake, 26, of Ventura, Calif., referring to the intelligence. "I guarantee that everyone in the city knows where we're going. Because the IA told them. The only thing they don't know is how big a force we're coming with."

On this morning, 22 U.S. soldiers were in the Stryker convoy along with one Iraqi interpreter, whom the soldiers called Joey. He didn't want his real name used for security reasons.

"Pretty soon the Shiites will be tired of our presence, just like the Sunnis," said Lake, noting that the squad now makes almost daily trips to Hurriyah.

"The general feeling among us is we're not really doing anything here," Caldwell said. "We clear one neighborhood, then another one fires up. It's an ongoing battle. It never ends."

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