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.
"Mister!" an anguished Abu Ameer pleaded.
"Mister," the caretaker tried again.
The fourth kick ripped out the lock, and the door swung open.
Abu Ameer paced around aimlessly. Lacking an interpreter on their first night at the gym, the soldiers had no way of communicating with him.
"Go to sleep," one ordered.
"Sleep?" Abu Ameer asked, looking puzzled.
"Sleep," the soldier repeated. "Go to bed."Deterrent -- or Target?
Two months ago, a barrage of mortar shells landed in the gym's courtyard, Abu Ameer said in an interview later. The attack caused his 18-year-old daughter to lose part of her hearing. And 23 of his roosters were killed. He was happy the Americans were moving in, he said, but he worried that their presence could be as much of a target as it was a deterrent.
"The insurgents don't like the Americans being here," he said.
The gym has a weight room with mirrors and fading posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. A large, high-ceilinged room across the hall was decorated with photographs from the gym's heyday, featuring Iraqi bodybuilders displaying trophies and medals. But soldiers promptly ripped those off the walls.
Pigeon droppings dotted the floor. One soldier said the pigeons would have to be shot, because their waste was sure to cause respiratory problems.
Despite its shortcomings, the gym was one of the best locations the military has taken over in Baghdad, the "crown jewel" among the outposts, as one commander described it. Across town, other members of the brigade were building an outpost in a parking lot by erecting tents.'Everything Is Worth Trying'
The 130 or so soldiers in the company assigned to the gym belong to the 4th Brigade's 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, out of Fort Riley, Kan. Their brigade is the second of five being deployed to Iraq as part of the troop increase.
The brigade, essentially built from scratch during the past 15 months, had been expected to provide logistical support for convoys and security for the large, citylike bases that the U.S. military has until recently used as its main operational centers in Iraq.
That mission changed Jan. 10 when Bush announced that he intended to send thousands of additional troops to Iraq to help implement a U.S. and Iraqi plan to pacify the capital and other parts of the country. Word trickled down the ranks of the Black Lions, as the 1st Battalion's members are known. At least two-thirds of the unit's soldiers are fresh out of basic training.
"I went home and said to my wife, 'The president talked about the surge to Baghdad,' " said Overby, the 1st Battalion's second in command. "How often do you get to be a part of what the president says? We were happy. It was better than escorting trucks through the desert."
It would also be far more dangerous, the battalion's soldiers recognized. Their commanders told them their mission was to secure a part of Baghdad by winning the confidence of residents, disarming militant groups and bringing criminals to justice.
But to do that, they will have to navigate streets where sniper attacks and bombings are common. And they will operate in densely populated areas where allies and enemies are often indistinguishable.
Cpl. Jon Dorsey, 20, of Sun Prairie, Wis., sitting on his cot in the gym's main hall, said he couldn't wait to go out on patrol. He had memorized the names of the city's neighborhoods and seemed to grasp the nuances of the conflict.
"We've been staring at maps for months," he said.
His friend Cpl. Lee Taylor of Oklahoma City jumped in: "We're going to meet and greet people, win the hearts and minds."
They felt adequately prepared, they agreed, albeit scared. Taylor found out two weeks before traveling to Iraq that his wife was pregnant. That night the couple celebrated by eating at Chili's, where they avoided talking about the dangers he would soon face.
"I have a lot to live for," he said. "I want to come home."
But the veterans in the group, some of whom were in Iraq for the third time, spoke less enthusiastically about the plan.
"I think everything is worth trying," said Staff Sgt. Brian Mancini, 28, of Phoenix. But he added wryly, "If I die in Iraq this time, I don't have to worry about coming back again."
Capt. Bret Hamilton, a company commander, said he was hopeful his soldiers would be able to turn over control of the neighborhood to Iraqi police by the end of their tour, which is slated to last a year but could be extended. "If I'm going to be here for a year, away from my wife and kids, I want to do what's going to get us out of here," he said. "It's not the mad war everyone perceives it to be. We have a good plan for it."A Ball of Fire
A group of soldiers who have been in Baghdad since October was assigned to Hamilton's unit to conduct patrols around the outpost during its first few days. Speaking about the neighborhood before going out on patrol late Saturday night, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Morton said he struggles to understand its sectarian makeup. Not much has changed in Iraq since he last served two years ago, he said, except for the growing sophistication of roadside bombs.
As the patrol convoy, lights off, rolled down the barren streets near the outpost, Morton saw a tiny red spot ahead.
A discarded cigarette butt, the soldier figured, as he stared at the Bradley Fighting Vehicle moving along a few feet ahead of his Humvee.
Then came the blast, deafening despite the vehicle's armor.
"IED!" Morton screamed, using the shorthand for roadside bomb.
A ball of fire had ripped into the right side of the Bradley, one of the U.S. military's sturdiest vehicles. Morton reached for his radio and asked, in a panicky voice, whether everyone was okay.
He heard only soft static. A few seconds passed. The soldiers in the Humvee spewed expletives as they stared into the cloud of dark gray smoke ahead.
"Everybody's all right," someone in the Bradley finally replied.
The soldiers in Morton's vehicle exhaled. What if one of the Humvees, which have softer skins, had been hit, they wondered. What if they had passed closer to the IED?
"Two guys ducked into a house," a soldier said over the radio. "On the left side of the street. I have my gun right on it."
But they didn't have enough evidence to shoot. And there weren't enough men to get out to investigate further.
"Do a freaking U-turn," Morton ordered.
So the soldiers turned back to their outpost to inspect the apple-size hole the bomb had drilled into one of the Bradley's armor plates.
Back at the base, they hugged and laughed. Were it not for the uniforms and the powerful rifles slung over their shoulders, they could have been college kids celebrating a victory by their school's football team.
Then the soldiers headed back to the scene of the blast, where they found only a small crater in the ground and scraps of the detonated bomb.