In Baghdad, a Flimsy Outpost

U.S. troops sleep after setting up a combat outpost, one of 100 slated for the capital, in an abandoned gym in western Baghdad.
U.S. troops sleep after setting up a combat outpost, one of 100 slated for the capital, in an abandoned gym in western Baghdad. (By Ernesto Londono -- The Washington Post)
By Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 22, 2007

BAGHDAD, March 21 -- The soldiers crept into the abandoned gymnasium shortly before midnight.

Flashlights provided the only light. Commanders whispered their orders.

A few dozen of the additional U.S. troops President Bush has sent to Iraq were moving in with utmost stealth to set up a small combat outpost in western Baghdad.

"Within 72 hours there's going to be some form of attack," Maj. Erik Overby, one of their commanders, had predicted hours earlier as the soldiers readied their long convoy of armored trucks and vehicles to head to a neighborhood called Amel. When its residents wake up, he'd said, "they're going to realize an American Army unit has moved in."

The soldiers huddled near their vehicles before they set out, as the habitual thunder of artillery rounds made the ground shake. A group of them, including some just a few months out of high school, giggled nervously. Some took long drags on cigarettes, anticipating the risks ahead. Roadside bombs could be hidden in the mounds of garbage strewn on the streets leading to the gym. Word of the Americans' arrival could have reached insurgents. A bloody surprise might be in store.

Still, the soldiers said, their incursion into one of Baghdad's meanest neighborhoods was their moment to make history. They could return home as the guys who turned the war around. But they could also turn out to be among the last soldiers dispatched to a lost war.

"A year from now, five years from now, when they write the history books, there are going to be two things: the fall of Baghdad and the surge," Overby said. "Win or lose, it's going to be an important piece of history."

The Abu Jafar al-Mansour Sports Club, the site of one of roughly 100 new combat outposts the U.S. military is setting up in the capital, had been abandoned for about four months. Hundreds of Sunni families had fled as Shiite militias moved into the neighborhood. U.S. military officials say the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq is active in the area. But flags and religious banners emblematic of support for the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia, are everywhere.

Homeowners have blocked off most residential streets using chunks of concrete, mounds of garbage and trunks of date palms.

As the American soldiers moved into the gym Friday night, they mistakenly cut the phone line of the neighboring building, an Iraqi police station.

The gym's caretaker, Abu Ameer, a father of six who lives in a small house in the back of the building, watched quietly as the soldiers strode in. Some headed straight to the roof, rifles at the ready, to watch for signs of danger. Others turned a small room into a triage area with flashlights dangling from the ceiling above two stretchers.

The caretaker, who had seen the soldiers fumbling in the dark, switched on the lights, startling soldiers who assumed the building didn't have power. They felt safer in the dark and scrambled toward the electrical box. It was inside a locked room. The door didn't budge with the first couple of kicks.

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