'I Don't Think This Place Is Worth Another Soldier's Life'
After 14 months in a Baghdad district torn by mounting sectarian violence, members of one U.S. unit are tired, bitter and skeptical.
Saturday, October 27, 2007; Page A01
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.