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."
"We're constantly being told that it's not our fight. It is their fight," said Sgt. Jose Reynoso, 24, of Yuma, Ariz., speaking of the Iraqi army. "But that's not the case. Whenever we go and ask them for guys, they almost always say no, and we have to do the job ourselves."
"You do have corruption problems among the ranks," said Sgt. Justin Hill, 24, of Abilene Tex., the squad leader. "I don't know what they can do about that. They have militias inside them. They are pretty much everywhere."
"The intel they give us and the intel we get are two different things," Lake said.
Caldwell, as he listened to the conversation, leaned his head back and said:
"I want to go back and play my PlayStation."'We Need the Americans'
In Hurriyah, the convoy pulled up outside the Muheaman Mosque, a tan Sunni house of worship overlooking a dirt field with junked cars. Last month, militiamen from the Mahdi Army, the force of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, killed several mosque workers. Now, an Iraqi army unit, with all Shiites, was stationed inside the mosque. The area, they said, was controlled by the Mahdi force.
Lt. Dan Futrell, 23, of Santa Clara, Calif., walked into the mosque, flanked by his comrades. Unarmed, bleary-eyed Iraqi soldiers greeted him and called for their commander, Maj. Saad Khalid Fetlawi, who wore a red beret.
Futrell asked him for 10 Iraqi soldiers to help search the targeted houses. Fetlawi immediately agreed and ordered his men to report for duty. As he waited, Fetlawi said he had heard that the United States was sending thousands of extra troops.
"This is good news. We have a weak government and a weak army. We need training, we need more equipment," Fetlawi said. "We need the Americans to help us go forward. Iraqi army soldiers are not ready to do all this themselves. At the moment, 20,000 is a good number to help us to bring security."
His soldiers came out with old, rusting AK-47 assault rifles and mismatched uniforms. One soldier wore baby blue running shoes with his beige camouflage gear. Some wore black masks so they wouldn't be recognized in the community. Another soldier tucked silver shears into his chest strap.
"This is one of the more squared-away units," Hill said.
"That's something," quipped Merrell, looking at the soldier with the shears. "The Iraqis are always ready to prune a good hedge."
"Okay," barked Hill, looking at the Iraqis. "You guys will lead out."
They walked around the corner, onto a narrow, unpaved street with two-story houses. Residents watched from their walled yards as the Iraqi soldiers politely knocked on the doors of the targeted houses. They went in, followed by the Apache Company troops.
Inside one house, an Iraqi soldier walked up to Reynoso. He had found two AK-47 magazine clips. By law, the family can own only one. The Iraqi soldier asked Reynoso what he should do.
"I am not going to tell you what to do," Reynoso said, clearly trying to wean the soldier from depending on him. "It is against the law, but it is up to you to decide."
The Iraqi soldier smiled. Then, he handed back the magazine clip to a member of the family.
In another house, an Iraqi soldier asked whom he should take orders from, the Americans or his Iraqi squad leader.
"I'll tell your squad leader what to do, and he will tell his squad what to do," replied Sgt. Justin Mongol, 25, of New Market, Va., as Joey translated.
After nearly a half-hour, the soldiers had not unearthed a single weapon. Futrell asked Joey to see whether they were near Mahanara School, as the informant had told them. They weren't. They were near Imam Ali School.
The houses they were meant to search were in another section of Hurriyah.
Some of the American soldiers were angry. They had wasted their time and put their lives at risk.
"Are we even in Hurriyah?" Mongol demanded.
"We're chasing a ghost," Hill said.
They returned to the mosque and asked Fetlawi for a map of Hurriyah.
"I have no map of the place. I came here two days ago," he said.
Still, Fetlawi made a call and was able to find the correct school. He dispatched a pickup truck with his men to guide the U.S. soldiers.
Inside the Stryker, Lake fumed: "A debacle," he declared.
"Same old bull. . . ," Caldwell said, using an expletive.No Help Without Orders
The Stryker stopped along a main street in Hurriyah.
The soldiers walked into a compound, the base of the Iraqi army unit in charge of a nearby checkpoint. The targeted house was across the street. And Futrell needed the help of Sgt. Ahmed Faisal. He needed some of his men to help raid the house.
"Our duty is only at this checkpoint, not inside the sector," Faisal said. "We can't send any men with you. I can't work without orders."
So the Americans crossed the street and searched the two-story house. They examined a red trunk on the roof and dug through a pile of sand. No weapons. "I think it's a dry hole," Mongol said, with disappointment.
Inside the Stryker, as it headed back to the base, the soldiers of Apache Company wondered whether they had been given false information by their Iraqi army contact. "They know things we don't," Lake said, repeating what he had said on the way to Hurriyah.
"That's why we're still here. That's why we will be here for years."