Soldiers Shift to Baghdad Outposts

U.S. soldiers who moved into a western Baghdad police station have faced drive-by shootings and at least four bombings outside the entrance.
U.S. soldiers who moved into a western Baghdad police station have faced drive-by shootings and at least four bombings outside the entrance. (By Joshua Partlow -- The Washington Post)

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By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 1, 2007

BAGHDAD, Feb. 28 -- American soldiers are leaving their sprawling fortress-cities and establishing many small outposts in the capital's most violent neighborhoods in a major tactical shift under the two-week-old Baghdad security plan.

Informed by counterinsurgency theory that calls for placing units full-time among the people they want to sway, U.S. troops are using their new bases to work with their Iraqi counterparts, uncover more battlefield intelligence and reinforce, by their sustained presence, the message that they will not allow militants unfettered freedom of movement.

But along with these advantages, American soldiers say these outposts pose new risks to their own safety and require pulling soldiers off patrols to protect their lodgings. The threats became apparent this month when a car bomb exploded at a U.S. outpost in Tarmiyah, north of Baghdad, killing two U.S. soldiers and wounding 29 others.

At a new U.S.-Iraqi base in the Jamiyah neighborhood of western Baghdad, a platoon of American soldiers guards the front gate and watches from the rooftop.

"These little combat outposts, they are more exposed: Your routes in here are very limited, and they're definitely watching us," Staff Sgt. Marcel Weaver, 35, said of the insurgents operating in the neighborhood around the base. A grenade "attack is coming, I can guarantee that."

U.S. soldiers have opened 15 of about 30 planned "joint security stations" in the capital. They have also set up an unspecified number of smaller "combat outposts." U.S. military spokesmen did not respond to requests for information about how many such outposts are operating in Baghdad or how many times they have been attacked.

Early Sunday, the U.S. Army battalion commander for the Jamiyah base gathered his top staff inside the station's control room, in what used to be a wedding hall, and discussed the distressing trend of violence just outside their base. The day before, a few hundred yards from the front gate, insurgents blasted rocket-propelled grenades at an Iraqi-guarded checkpoint, followed the barrage with small-arms fire, then detonated two car bombs when American troops rushed to respond.

"What is it about this checkpoint that makes it such a magnet?" asked Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl, the battalion commander, studying a large aerial map of western Baghdad. "Why does it always get attacked?" he asked again, prodding his staff.

His soldiers answered that the recent arrival of Iraqi and U.S. soldiers in the embattled Sunni neighborhood had created an enticing target for insurgents. Kuehl agreed that the ambush may have been designed to draw out the Americans. "Yes, they probably have determined that we are here, and this would have been the route we would have taken to get out," he said.

Later that day, two mortar rounds landed about 50 yards outside another outpost the battalion had set up in a defunct shopping mall in the Adil neighborhood. The blasts struck a Humvee, deflating three tires. At a third new post, in a police station in the al-Khadraa neighborhood, soldiers have faced gunfire and a series of roadside bombs planted amid the trash along the one route to the base.

"I'm sure we're under surveillance, and I'm sure they're looking for our weak points, and that's for every one of these outposts," said Kuehl, who commands the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, attached to the 1st Infantry Division. "We will never finish building the force protection around this place. It's got to be thought through every day and rehearsed."

The soldiers planned to erect new concrete blast walls on the northern and southern flanks of the two-story headquarters this week. Kuehl has instructed his soldiers to assume the perspective of the enemy and practice, or "red-team," ways to attack the compound. Up on the rooftop, soldiers are stationed at four sandbagged machine-gun turrets every hour of the day.

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