By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 21, 2008
BAGHDAD -- This time last year, Capt. Wes Wilhite's men were getting ready to move into an abandoned house in western Baghdad wedged between cells of Sunni insurgents to the south and strongholds of Shiite militias to the north.
Violence in the Iraqi capital seemed unstoppable. U.S. military vehicles were getting attacked with armor-piercing roadside bombs almost daily, and a raging sectarian war was Balkanizing once-mixed neighborhoods.
"A slaughterhouse," is how Steve Murrani, an interpreter working with Wilhite's men, described it.
The soldiers, who came to Iraq as part of President Bush's troop increase, began returning home last week. They leave with sunburned faces, calloused hands, tattered boots. On their wrists they wear black metal bracelets inscribed with the names of five soldiers killed on a clear afternoon in March, just as progress was starting to seem irreversible.
They leave buoyed by a sense of pride over dramatic security improvements they helped bring about. Violence in Iraq is at its lowest level in years, the rate of U.S. casualties has dropped since the United States began implementing a new counterinsurgency strategy last year, and Iraqi politicians have made some strides in bringing about political reconciliation. But the departing soldiers are also burdened by their losses, still unable to determine whether history will call their tour a turning point or a waste of time.
"Could this all fall apart?" Wilhite, 28, a tall, lean redhead from Milwaukee, asked in an interview in early July. He sighed. "Possibly."A Miserable Start
Wilhite's unit, the 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division's Delta Company, arrived in Iraq in March 2007.
Once-vibrant commercial districts in their area of operation, which included the neighborhoods of Jamiyah, Khadra and Amiriyah, had become ghost towns.
Sunnis in the northern part of the area had been run out of town by Shiite militiamen bent on expanding their domain. Gunmen hid powerful roadside bombs in the mounds of garbage and junk that lined the streets. A curfew then in effect wasn't hard to enforce; most people didn't venture out after dark.
The roughly 120 soldiers of Delta Company spent the first few months sleeping at a large base near Baghdad International Airport. They were soon assigned to a neighborhood outpost to live among Iraqis, train soldiers and policemen and build relationships with local leaders known for their animosity toward Americans.
The soldiers moved into the two-story house in the Washash neighborhood in August. The Joint Security Station, as the outpost was formally known, had no running water or air conditioning. Exhausted from long shifts filling sandbags and manning guard posts, the Americans collapsed at night on cots and slept in sweltering rooms.
"It was misery," Wilhite said. "In one word, it was absolute misery."
They didn't trust their Iraqi colleagues. One of the company's first missions was to detain Wilhite's Iraqi counterpart, an army officer, because U.S. soldiers discovered he was working with his cousin, the area's top militia leader.
Many of the Iraqi soldiers were undisciplined and unmotivated, Wilhite said. They frequently fell asleep at checkpoints and sometimes stole the American soldiers' food.Building a Partnership
Backed by their considerably better-armed and -trained American partners, some of the Iraqi soldiers started showing real prowess, Wilhite said. Residents began walking into the outpost and calling its tip line.
There were limits to the partnership. In the early months, the soldiers said, they found that when they briefed the Iraqis about upcoming raids, targets would be warned ahead of time.
"We learned from our mistakes," said Spec. Derek Taylor, 23, of Huntington, W.Va. The rule became "don't tell the IA anything," he said, referring to the Iraqi army. The Americans began disclosing the locations and targets of raids only as teams were heading out, he said.
Some Iraqis proved to be competent and dedicated soldiers, Taylor said. But they never quite became comrades.
In the fall, Wilhite was ordered to hire nearly 500 neighborhood guards under a program eventually called Sons of Iraq. Most recruits were Sunnis, and some had been involved with insurgent groups responsible for attacks against American soldiers. U.S. military officials called the program a necessary step to weed out "reconcilable" extremists from those unshakably determined to kill U.S. soldiers, whom they consider "infidels" occupying their country.
At first, Wilhite said, he wasn't a big fan of the program. "What's going to happen when the money dries up?" he wondered. "The same people that are my friends now are going to be blowing me up later."
The armed guards were issued badges, khaki uniforms and hand-held radios, and given a starting salary of $300 per month. Wilhite said their recruitment and training turned out to be surprisingly smooth.
The Sons of Iraq kept militias from expanding their influence into predominantly Sunni areas and gave unemployed Sunnis who may have otherwise joined insurgent groups an income and a steppingstone into the Iraqi security forces.
In September, the Washash leader of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, was killed. His slaying triggered a few days of clashes but ultimately weakened the militia's grip in the area.
Militiamen still had a considerable presence, Wilhite said, but they grew reluctant to engage U.S. troops head-on, largely because of a cease-fire order from Sadr.
The soldiers began classifying militiamen loyal to Sadr into two groups, "black JAM and white JAM," using the military's acronym for Jaish al-Mahdi, Arabic for Mahdi Army.
Black JAM militiamen were those most likely to detect a call for violence in Sadr's often-nebulous edicts. White JAM fighters were more prone to protest than shoot when Sadr called for "civil disobedience."
The company's most pressing concern became cells of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had pockets of support in several neighborhoods; the sectarian violence waned.
Residents felt secure enough to report months-old slayings. Iraqi and U.S. soldiers dug out the corpses of men and women buried in their own back yards.After Calm, Pandemonium
Wilhite's men started spending more time helping shop owners reopen their businesses and visiting schools and clinics. Local leaders who had been reluctant to work with the Americans during their first few months in Washash became eager allies.
"Pretty much nothing happened between November and March," said platoon leader 1st Lt. Michael Lawson, 26, of Fond du Lac, Wis. "We never got shot at, never hit an IED. We went on raids and stuff but never saw enemy combat."
On March 10, one of Wilhite's platoons was visiting businesses, as it had been doing for months, to ask shop owners about security. At about 3 p.m., one soldier spotted someone eyeing the platoon intently as he spoke on a cellphone.
With their lieutenant on leave, noncommissioned officers were leading the patrol: Staff Sgts. Ernesto G. Cimarrusti, 25, of Douglas, Ariz., and David D. Julian, 31, of Evanston, Wyo., and Sgt. 1st Class Shawn M. Suzch, 32, of Hilltown, Pa.
As they stepped out of a shop, a man wearing sandals and a loose black robe approached and stood between two of the soldiers' Humvees. Then he detonated the explosives wrapped around his waist.
Wilhite heard the blast from the outpost. As reports began trickling in on the radio, he raced out to find a scene of pandemonium. Cimarrusti, Julian, Suzch, two other soldiers and an interpreter had been killed.
"All it took was one second," said Spec. Mathew Leisz, 25, of Minneapolis, one of the survivors of the attack. "It's something I'm going to remember for the rest of my life. It makes you think -- one man could cause all that damage. It makes you think."
Initially, the soldiers were numb.
"No one got sleep in four days," said Murrani, the interpreter. "I smoked 6 1/2 packs of cigarettes in one day."
Relatives of the dead soldiers were notified a few hours after the bombing. Two of their wives had given birth while their husbands were in Iraq.
Julian had made it home on Christmas Eve to meet his two-week-old firstborn, Elizabeth. "He was so excited," said his widow, Erin, in a phone interview. "I didn't see my daughter unless she had to be changed or fed while he was home."
She said returning to Iraq broke his heart.
"There's only been two times I've seen him cry," she said. "When he left home that day, he cried all the way to the airport terminal."
Angela Suzch said her husband hated missing out on his daughter's first few months. But he felt strongly about the work he was doing in Iraq. "His soldiers were his life," she said. "The military was his life."
Cimarrusti, the youngest of eight children, immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was 12. He played football in high school and became a disc jockey. In 2001, he joined the Army.
"From the time he was a child, he always played soldier," said Victor Verdugo, his older brother. "He always said he would be a soldier."'Could All Be for Naught'
Wilhite's men struggled to keep their anger and grief in check after the attack. "We don't let people get as close as we used to," said Spec. Jesse Owens, 20, of Woodbridge, during an interview in April.
"It took every ounce that I had not to lose my cool with people," Leisz said.
During a market patrol that month, Staff Sgt. Anthony S. Orosz, 36, chatted with business owners and gave them cards with the outpost's tip line. Most merchants were polite but reserved.
Orosz described their general attitude toward U.S. soldiers: "Please don't stand in front of my shop for too long."
After a conversation with one business owner, Orosz asked an Iraqi soldier standing next to him whether he had any questions for the man. The soldier looked down; he hadn't been paying attention.
Orosz and his men got back in their vehicle and drove off. Four Iraqi soldiers rode in the Humvee in front. As they left the market, the Iraqi soldier in the gunner's seat smiled, waved and blew kisses to passersby, looking more as if he was on parade than patrol.
Wilhite said he leaves Iraq feeling enormously proud. But he worries that upcoming provincial elections could incite violence if Sunnis don't feel they have made adequate political inroads.
He said he was not the arbiter of the success of the "surge" strategy. "You'd have to ask the Iraqi people," he said. "You have to ask the Iraqi government that."
Some of his men were more pointed.
"It's worth it, and it's not worth it," said Taylor, the specialist from West Virginia. "I have a wife and a kid. I go home, and my daughter is 2. She probably doesn't remember who I am."
Leisz, who survived the suicide bombing, nodded.
"It's not worth me not being there with my wife, or the friends we've lost over here," he said. "Now that the strength is going to go down, this could all be for naught."