BRIEFING BEGINS at 0800 at FOB Prosperity, and I was ready for the typical "SIGACTS." Small push pins on a magnified satellite image map on the wall showed where each significant act occurred: SAF, IED, EFP, a morse-code of letters that usually meant danger, explosions, and possibly a dead body. But these were the Rogues, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Brigade, 6th Iraqi Army Division Military Transitional Team (MiTT), and they had a different mission than most stationed here in Baghdad. First Sergeant Joseph McFarlane, a career Army man whose father served in Vietnam and whose grandfathers both served in WWII, read the latest news from the place the soldiers cared about most--back home.
He read stories about broken bridges, baseball scores, and which movie earned the most at the box office that weekend. Sergeant Arturo Guerra, of El Paso Texas, described a video game where border agents arrested illegal immigrants. Whittingham, a young soldier, had to get up and tell a joke. Many laughed, mostly because the joke wasn't funny, so they made him promise to stand up the next morning and try it again.
But the mission that day was serious, and each member of the 3-5/6 had the dangers of Baghdad in the back of his mind. Jamia was once a majority Sunni neighborhood where professors, bureaucrats, and other favorites of the former regime had lived, until Saddam was overthrown and vengeful Shia drove the residents out. The neighborhood's attractive and centrally located multi-level homes, with high ceilings and spacious roof patios, would be worth a fortune in Manhattan, but here, in Baghdad, there â s a 70 percent vacancy rate. The majority of the inhabitants have fled to areas where they are less threatened, and the new occupants are often not so neighborly. Al Qaeda has been known to use abandoned homes as â safe houses â in order to carry out the order of the day--terrorizing the populace. These operations used to target American forces, but AQI now seems to prefer attacking Iraqi soldiers.
The Rogues were sent to this troubled zone as a result of the troop surge. Before, they had been on Haifa Street, where, in January of 2007, they were ambushed and had to hold their ground for nearly six hours. "Everyone survived," said Major Chris Norrie, an armor officer cross-trained to supervise the mentorship of the 5th Brigade Iraqi Army. During the firefight, the Rogues tried to rally their fellow Iraqi soldiers, some fought, and some disappeared.
The surge sent more troops into Haifa--by the time I got there in July, the 4-9 Cavalry remarked how much calmer one of Baghdad premiere boulevards had become. So, the 3-5/6 was sent to another tough neighborhood where they were to make another go at mentoring the Iraqi military.
The Killing Fields
The "Killing Fields" are at the center of the Jamia neighborhood violence. "We think they dump bodies here because it's a lot easier to get on and off the main road," remarked Major Norrie. The field was nothing more than an open dirt plot of Baghdadi weeds with trash mixed in that often covered IEDs. In the center, there was a television antenna, but no one was sure if it worked.
Signals from cellphones did, however, activate Improvised Explosive Devices. The month before, a deeply buried IED (the most effective type) had killed five Iraqi soldiers. "This Humvee was thrown 150 feet from the explosion," said operations adviser Captain Pete Kilpatrick when he motioned to a vehicle that had been literally torn in half. He kept saying "we," even when he spoke of the Iraqi Army, and I didn't always know who the Captain was talking about, but soon realized that to the Captain it didn't matter. The 3-5/6 works hand in hand with Iraqi soldiers--their deaths were a loss, just like any other. The vehicle was dragged back to the Green Zone where it lay, in waiting, on the Camp Honor parking lot.
In the hallway of the Iraqi Army base, the photos of young slain soldiers who have died in the line of duty smile at visitors. I accompanied intelligence adviser Lieutenant Morton Ellison to observe the interrogation of a man arrested on suspicion of terrorist activities. The suspect confessed before I saw him. "It's the strangest thing," said the young Ellison who was roughly the same age as the blindfolded man sitting Indian-style on the carpet, "a lot of these guys are really proud of what they do, so they brag about it."
In an effort to get the Iraqi equivalent of "street cred'", the detainee confessed to several murders and to planting IEDs. I've witnessed a couple of interrogations that have gone the same way, men like this one casually discussing the people they had murdered.
Clear, Hold, Control
Matt Sanchez, a recipient of the Jeane Kirkpatrick Award for Academic Freedom, is a student at Columbia University and holds the rank of Corporal in the United States Marine Corps. He is currently embedded as a civilian journalist in Iraq.