Monday, October 23, 2006

On Duty At The Alamo

No one in Iraq knows how to stop the sectarian death squads of Sadr City.
By Christian Caryl
October 30, 2006

Officially its name is Forward Operating Base Hope, but the 25 Americans who are stationed there call it something else: "the Alamo." Just south of their fortress is Sadr City, the immense Baghdad slum controlled by Moqtada al-Sadr and his private Mahdi Army. Although the firebrand Shiite cleric has denied any involvement in violence against the Sunnis, his stronghold has become a sanctuary for sectarian death squads. If the neighborhood boils over—as it has twice before, in 2004—millions of furious Iraqis will be standing between the Alamo's residents and the nearest U.S. reinforcements, five miles across town. The base's U.S. commander, Capt. David Baer, says he's not worried. "The militants in Sadr City don't want to fight," he says. "They'd get wiped out."

Even if he's right, how long can the truce last? In an effort to stop the death squads, American units have been struggling to assert control over key Shiite neighborhoods around Baghdad. U.S. casualties have jumped accordingly. In the past few weeks, Americans throughout Iraq have been dying at rates not seen since the battles of Najaf and Fallujah in 2004. Meanwhile the sectarian carnage keeps deepening in and around the capital. "We're obviously very concerned about what we're seeing in the city," Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the senior U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, acknowledged last week. "We're taking a lot of time to go back and look at the whole Baghdad security plan."

The review may prove useless. Even as they create new study groups and ask what has gone wrong, senior officers at the Pentagon say privately that they have already tried every possible strategy. Two years ago, when there were 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and effectively zero Iraqi forces, the expectation was that once the Iraqis were trained up, security would improve. Now there are 140,000 Americans and 130,000 Iraqi troops, and parts of the country—Baghdad among them—are worse off than ever. No one knows what to do about it. "There is no plan B," says one senior Pentagon official, not wanting his name on such a gloomy assessment. U.S. military leaders are increasingly worried that their troops' sacrifices are only enabling Iraq's politicians to duck the tough calls necessary to save Iraq from civil war.

U.S. forces at the Alamo share that frustration. They're supposed to be training a group of 750 Iraqi Army recruits and their officers, but Americans throughout the training system are forced to devote much of their energy and attention to weeding out the bad ones rather than grooming the good ones. About three quarters of the Alamo's Iraqi recruits and officers are natives of Sadr City—meaning they're closely tied, through family and friendship, to the same Shiite militias that are spreading terror and death across much of the capital. A few weeks ago the Americans discovered that someone with a mobile phone had placed a direct call from inside the base to al-Sadr's headquarters. Now the Americans are collecting the Iraqis' phones at the Alamo's gates.

Unauthorized calls are the least of it. Two weeks ago U.S. and Iraqi troops detained one of the Alamo trainees' senior Iraqi officers for an apparent case of ethnic cleansing in Baghdad's upscale Mansour district. The officer had allegedly "borrowed" two Humvees and seven U.S.-trained Iraqi troops for the task, which he claimed had been ordered by a senior government official. "Everything we've worked for to give people freedoms is being rolled back by the militias," says Lt. Zeroy Lawson, the Alamo's intelligence officer.

The Americans' problems would be bad enough if the militias' tentacles stopped there. Last week U.S. troops captured Sheik Mazen al-Saedi, a senior member of al-Sadr's political organization, on suspicion of fomenting sectarian killings. They freed him the next day on the direct orders of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Al-Sadr and his organization are among the pillars of Maliki's government—the government U.S. troops are trying to protect. "We're operating as guests in this country," General Caldwell explained. "Any kind of ... limits that the prime minister wants to impose upon us, we need to abide by. I mean, this is his nation, after all. It's not ours."

Another core U.S. mission—winning Iraqi hearts and minds—is imperiled by a new threat: snipers. Some of the deadliest of the bunch are operating in the Shiite-dominated areas east of the Tigris River, where the Mahdi Army has been broadening its control. Since late August, American forces have repeatedly found themselves under sudden attack from unseen gunmen armed with high-powered Russian-made sniper rifles. The shooters fire a single shot at long range and melt away into the cityscape before they can be caught. In at least one incident, the sniper used a silencer. "Now it's on everyone's mind," says Capt. Jason Meisel, an intel officer with a unit patrolling directly adjacent to Sadr City. "It's on my mind when I leave the wire. Snipers create fear. That's the whole point of snipers. It's about stopping us from talking to the people."

The tactic is showing results. U.S. units in Baghdad have begun patrolling in heavily armored Bradley fighting vehicles instead of Humvees, and soldiers have learned to jog, not walk, in open areas, constantly scanning the rooftops. It's no way to inspire confidence among the locals, who are desperate for protection. If the Americans can't promise them security, the militias are glad to step in. Iraq's security forces are just as fearful. "My cousins, my neighbors, they're in the militia," says an Iraqi soldier at FOB Hope, declining to be named. "If they find out I'm working here, they'll kill me." If this is hope, God save us from despair.


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