How skirmishes in Iraq complicate the US mission
Most Iraqis are grateful Hussein's reign has ended, but sporadic violence shows persistence of lingering foes.
BAGHDAD — On two separate occasions within the past week in east Baghdad, a gunman has approached a US soldier and shot him at close range.
In the first attack, late last week at a US checkpoint near a bridge over the Diyala River, the soldier was killed.
The second attack came Monday afternoon during a three-Humvee convoy in a warehouse area of Thawra, a neighborhood in the eastern part of the city. A military police officer was shot in the shoulder and is expected to return to service.
In a slightly different kind of incident, a US soldier guarding a power substation in Thawra was ensnarled in an apparent drive-by shooting from a tractor-trailer cab late Monday. The soldier returned fire, peppering the truck with 100 rounds and wounding at least one assailant.
The violent confrontations illustrate a stark reality about the US mission in Iraq. Although the majority of Iraqis in this heavily Shiite Muslim section of Baghdad favor the continued presence of American forces and cheer them as heroes for toppling the government of Saddam Hussein, not everyone in Iraq shares that view.
A determined individual (or small group) with access to guns or bombs could greatly complicate American efforts to help rebuild Iraq, particularly if the attacks are sustained over a period of time.
Local commanders here are determined they won't let that happen. "If it takes us off our mission, we've lost," says Lt. Col. Joel Armstrong, commander of the 2nd Squadron of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which patrols eastern Baghdad.
"There are millions of people here, millions of bullets, and tens of thousands of guns," he says. "But we will all stay focused."
Army commanders have placed great emphasis on the protection of their forces. Despite 90-degree-plus heat, US troops are required to wear combat helmets and flak jackets and carry their weapon whenever in public. In addition, soldiers are warned about becoming too complacent about their surroundings. They are told to alter their routes and times of patrols.
"You've just got to keep your head about you," says Capt. Scott Schumacher of North Little Rock, Ark. "You never know what is going to happen out here."
Pfc. Donnie McKnight kept his head Monday when he heard gunfire approaching from down the street. He was manning a light machine gun mounted on top of a Humvee parked beside a power station. The post was set up to protect infrastructure from looters.
A vehicle appeared down the street, and Private McKnight saw a muzzle flash. One round slammed into the cement curb five feet from McKnight's Humvee. A portion of the curb about the size of a large grapefruit shattered into tiny pieces.
"I was scared, I'll be honest," says McKnight, who is from Cutler, Ohio. "I heard a round whiz past my head, and that's when I opened up and started firing."
The rapid fire punched holes through the windshield and out the other side of the steel truck. The driver ran off the road down the street, stopped, and then drove off. Soldiers later located the truck, in part by following a large oil leak. They detained an Iraqi man with blood on his hands and clothes. Inside the truck, they found an unloaded rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
The potential consequence of Iraqis targeting Americans was evident on Sunday at a military memorial service in Baghdad for Pfc. Marlin Rockhold.
Private Rockhold of the Third Infantry Division was killed at the bridge checkpoint last Thursday when an Iraqi shot him as he was attempting to direct traffic. The Iraqi shooter escaped in a car.
At the front of the makeshift chapel was a small platform with Rockhold's boots, his rifle, and his helmet resting on the muzzle of a rifle.
"Every day I pinch myself to see if I am having a bad dream, but I know it is reality," Spc. Leslie Pryce told the 300 soldiers and officers in attendance at the service.
At the conclusion of the memorial, Rockhold's 1st sergeant called the roll. He sounded a name. "Here, 1st sergeant," came the brisk reply. He called another. "Here, 1st sergeant."
Then he called Rockhold's name.
"Private First Class Rockhold," he called out.
"Pfc. Marlin Rockhold," he called out.
Rockhold, whose friends called him Rock, was awarded the Army Commendation Medal. There was a 21-gun salute. But rather than firing into the air and potentially endangering civilian Iraqis, the rifles were aimed downward.
There are no blanks in a war zone.