By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 27, 2007
BAGHDAD, Oct. 26 Their line of tan Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles creeps through another Baghdad afternoon. At this pace, an excruciating slowness, they strain to see everything, hoping the next manhole cover, the next rusted barrel, does not hide another bomb. A few bullets pass overhead, but they don't worry much about those.
"I hate this road," someone says over the radio.
They stop, look around. The streets of Sadiyah are deserted again. To the right, power lines slump down into the dirt. To the left, what was a soccer field is now a pasture of trash, combusting and smoking in the sun. Packs of skinny wild dogs trot past walls painted with slogans of sectarian hate.
A bomb crater blocks one lane, so they cross to the other side, where houses are blackened by fire, shops crumbled into bricks. The remains of a car bomb serve as hideous public art. Sgt. Victor Alarcon's Humvee rolls into a vast pool of knee-high brown sewage water -- the soldiers call it Lake Havasu, after the Arizona spring-break party spot -- that seeps in the doors of the vehicle and wets his boots.
"When we first got here, all the shops were open. There were women and children walking out on the street," Alarcon said this week. "The women were in Western clothing. It was our favorite street to go down because of all the hot chicks."
That was 14 long months ago, when the soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, arrived in southwestern Baghdad. It was before their partners in the Iraqi National Police became their enemies and before Shiite militiamen, aligned with the police, attempted to exterminate a neighborhood of middle-class Sunni families.
Next month, the U.S. soldiers will complete their tour in Iraq. Their experience in Sadiyah has left many of them deeply discouraged, by both the unabated hatred between rival sectarian fighters and the questionable will of the Iraqi government to work toward peaceful solutions.
Asked if the American endeavor here was worth their sacrifice -- 20 soldiers from the battalion have been killed in Baghdad -- Alarcon said no: "I don't think this place is worth another soldier's life."
While top U.S. commanders say the statistics of violence have registered a steep drop in Baghdad and elsewhere, the soldiers' experience in Sadiyah shows that numbers alone do not describe the sense of aborted normalcy -- the fear, the disrupted lives -- that still hangs over the city.
Before the war, Sadiyah was a bustling middle-class district, popular with Sunni officers in Saddam Hussein's military. It has become strategically important because it represents a fault line between militia power bases in al-Amil to the west and the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Dora to the east. U.S. commanders say the militias have made a strong push for the neighborhood in part because it lies along the main road that Shiite pilgrims travel to the southern holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.
American soldiers estimate that since violence intensified this year, half of the families in Sadiyah have fled, leaving approximately 100,000 people. After they left, insurgents and militiamen used their abandoned homes to hold meetings and store weapons. The neighborhood deteriorated so quickly that many residents came to believe neither U.S. nor Iraqi security forces could stop it happening.
The descent of Sadiyah followed a now-familiar pattern in Baghdad. In response to suicide bombings blamed on Sunni insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Shiite militias, particularly the Mahdi Army, went from house to house killing and intimidating Sunni families. In many formerly mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad, such as al-Amil and Bayaa, Shiites have become the dominant sect, with their militias the most powerful force.
"It's just a slow, somewhat government-supported sectarian cleansing," said Maj. Eric Timmerman, the battalion's operations officer.
The focus of the battalion's efforts in Sadiyah was to develop the Iraqi security forces into an organized, fair and proficient force -- but the American soldiers soon realized this goal was unattainable. The sectarian warfare in Sadiyah was helped along by the Wolf Brigade, a predominantly Shiite unit of the Iraqi National Police that tolerated, and at times encouraged, Mahdi Army attacks against Sunnis, according to U.S. soldiers and residents. The soldiers endured repeated bombings of their convoys within view of police checkpoints. During their time here, they have arrested 70 members of the national police for collaboration in such attacks and other crimes.
The Interior Ministry, which oversees the national police, has said that officials are working hard to root out militiamen from the force and denied that officers have any intention of participating in sectarian violence.
But in one instance about two months ago, the American soldiers heard that the Wolf Brigade planned to help resettle more than 100 Shiite families in abandoned houses in the neighborhood. When platoon leader Lt. Brian Bifulco arrived on the scene, he noticed that "abandoned houses to them meant houses that had Sunnis in them."
"What we later found out is they weren't really moving anyone in, it was a cover for the INP to go in and evict what Sunni families were left there," recalled Bifulco, 23, a West Point graduate from Huntsville, Ala. "We showed up, and there were a bunch of Sunni families just wandering around the streets with their bags, taking up refuge in a couple Sunni mosques in the area."
As the militiamen and insurgents battled it out, the bodies mounted up. U.S. troops said that earlier this year it was common for them to find at least half a dozen corpses scattered on the pavement during their daily patrols.
Militiamen in BMWs rode around the neighborhood with megaphones, demanding that residents evacuate. Mortar rounds launched from nearby Bayaa, a Mahdi Army stronghold, began crashing down regularly in Sadiyah. Three mosques in the neighborhood were rigged with explosives and destroyed.
The national police erected checkpoints outside other mosques and prevented Sunnis from attending services. The U.S. soldiers began facing ever more sophisticated armor-piercing roadside bombs known as EFPs, short for explosively formed penetrators. Some of them were linked in arrays that blasted out as many as 18 heated copper slugs.
Over time, the neighborhood became a battleground that residents fled by the thousands. Hundreds of shops shut down, schools closed, and access to basic services such as electricity, fuel and food deteriorated. "The end state was people left. They felt unsafe," said Timmerman, the operations officer.
"We were so committed to them as a partner we couldn't see it for what it was. In retrospect, I've got to think it was a coordinated effort," Timmerman said. "To this day, I don't think we truly understand how infiltrated or complicit the national police are" with the militias.
Lt. Col. George A. Glaze, the battalion commander, says his soldiers are playing the role of a bouncer caught between brawling customers. Alone, they can restrain the fighters, keep them off balance, but they cannot stop the melee until the house lights come on -- that is, until the Iraqi government steps in.
"They're either going to turn the lights on or we're all going to realize they've moved the switch," he said.
"I'm frustrated. After 14 months, I've got a lot of thoughts in my head. Do they fundamentally get giving up individual rights and power for the greater good?" Glaze said. "I'm going to leave here being skeptical of everything."
Over the past two months, the U.S. soldiers have recruited more than 300 local residents, most of them Sunnis, into a neighborhood defense force. This has proved more controversial in Sadiyah than elsewhere; the Iraqi government has openly accused the force's members of abusing residents and has limited their freedom of movement. In September, after Glaze led an eight-month campaign to kick out the Wolf Brigade, soldiers from the Iraqi army's Muthanna Brigade, which has clashed with Sunni volunteers in the Abu Ghraib area, arrived in Sadiyah.
The Iraqi army's arrival and the emergence of the Sunni volunteers have coincided with some positive signs, the soldiers said. Some of the shops along the once-busy commercial district of Tijari Street now open for a few hours a day. The number of violent incidents has dropped, although it rose again over the past two weeks, officers said.
"This is a dangerous place," said Capt. Lee Showman, 28, a senior officer in the battalion. "People are killed here every day, and you don't hear about it. People are kidnapped here every day, and you don't hear about it."
On Oct. 14, Washington Post special correspondent Salih Saif Aldin was killed while on assignment in Sadiyah.
Those who patrol the neighborhood every day say the fight has left them tired, bitter, wounded and confused. Many of their scars are on display, some no one can see. Sgt. 1st Class Todd Carlsrud has a long gash on the right side of his neck and carries a lump of shrapnel lodged against his spine that his doctors would not risk cutting out. Another sergeant felt the flaming pain of a bullet tearing through his cheek and learned the taste of his own warm blood. He was one of three soldiers that day to get shot in the head -- a fourth was hit in the biceps -- when his squad walked into a house and found two gunmen waiting.
"The closer we get to leaving, the more we worry about it," said Alarcon, 27, sitting at a plastic table with several other soldiers outside their outpost in Sadiyah. "Being here, you know that any second, any time of the day, your life could be over."
"Gone in a flash," said Sgt. Matthew Marino.
"We had two mechanics working in the motor pool get hit by mortars," Alarcon said. "You would have never thought." Both died.
Many of the soldiers from the battalion are on their second tour in Iraq. Three years ago, they were based in Tikrit, the home of Saddam Hussein, a city they entered expecting to fight a determined Sunni insurgency. By the end of their tour, with much of the violence contained, many of them felt optimistic about progress in Iraq.
"I honestly thought we were making a difference in Tikrit. Then we come back to a hellhole," Marino said. "That was a playground compared to Baghdad."
The American people don't fully realize what's going on, said Staff Sgt. Richard McClary, 27, a section leader from Buffalo.
"They just know back there what the higher-ups here tell them. But the higher-ups don't go anywhere, and actually they only go to the safe places, places with a little bit of gunfire," he said. "They don't ever [expletive] see what we see on the ground."