U.S. Security Buildup in Iraq
Troops at Baghdad Outposts Seek Safety in Fortifications
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
BAGHDAD -- Nearly three months after the U.S. military launched a new strategy to safeguard Baghdad's population by pushing American and Iraqi forces deeper into the city's neighborhoods, defending their small outposts is increasingly requiring heavy bulwarks reminiscent of the fortresslike bases that the U.S. troops left behind.
To guard against bombs, mortar fire and other threats, U.S. commanders are adding fortifications to the outposts, setting them farther back from traffic and arming them with antitank weapons capable of stopping suicide bombers driving armored vehicles. U.S. troops maintain the advantage of living in the neighborhoods they are asked to protect, but the need to safeguard themselves from attack means more walls between them and civilians.
At a moonlit outpost on the edge of Baghdad's Sadr City one night last week, 1st Sgt. Donald Knapp balanced himself on a concrete barrier suspended by a crane and slowly guided a heavy slab into position. It was 3 a.m., and Knapp and a few other soldiers were working through the night to fortify their camp.
Over four days, the soldiers erected hundreds of sections of wall and reinforced them with barbed wire and 300 truckloads of sand. They pushed out the walls of the camp, known as a joint security station, and blocked approaching roads with serpentine barriers. "When the guys get time to sit down, they sleep," said Knapp, a sniper from Milan, Ind., as soldiers in dusty T-shirts labored nearby.
Knapp's unit from the 82nd Airborne Division is redoubling security efforts as insurgents and militiamen step up attacks on their outpost, one of the dozens of small patrol bases set up as part of the deployment of tens of thousands of additional U.S. and Iraqi troops. The strategy has reduced sectarian killings but has also put U.S. troops at greater risk, such as when a suicide bombing at an outpost east of Baghdad killed nine U.S. soldiers and wounded 20 on April 23.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has acknowledged that U.S. troops will face opposition as they move into neighborhoods. "It's a fight. They're fighting to hold a grip on the population, and the Iraqis and coalition are working to break the grip," he said in an interview last month. Still, he said, the outposts are vital to his counterinsurgency strategy. "If you want to protect the population, you've got to live with it," he said. "There's no commuting to the fight."
More than 60 joint security stations, staffed by American and Iraqi forces, and U.S. combat outposts are now operating in Baghdad, leading to an increase in the discovery of weapons caches, a U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, said Monday.
"There's two threats to the combat outpost . . . a huge truck bomb, and indirect fire," Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who handles day-to-day military operations in Iraq, said in an interview at his Baghdad headquarters last week. In response, he said, U.S. troops are building more walls to shield themselves from mortars and rockets, while trying to track down insurgents firing on them.
To counter truck bombs, military engineers are gauging the structural soundness of the outposts and making sure they are well removed from traffic, Odierno said. Antitank weapons such as the bazooka-like AT-4 are also now required for soldiers on guard.
"They are now armoring these trucks, so whereas before we could shoot them and kill them, now we have to use some antitank capability against them and we're going to do that," Odierno said.
For U.S. troops living at the small camps, the constant need for vigilance -- coupled with hardship conditions and the prospect of 15-month tours -- has in some cases taken a toll on morale. While some soldiers see advantages in living alongside Iraqi security forces inside the neighborhoods they patrol, others voice resentment over a mission they believe is ill-defined.
At the outpost in Sadr City, a volatile predominantly Shiite Muslim district of east Baghdad with about 2 million residents, scores of Iraqi police officers and U.S. soldiers live in cramped quarters in a two-story building that serves as a joint security station. They eat mostly packaged food, rarely shower, and in off-duty hours do little but sleep. U.S. troops staff guard towers on the roof 24 hours a day and, uncertain of the loyalties of their Iraqi counterparts, also stand sentry at the American section inside.