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Baghdad's outposts bring new perils

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 22, 2007


Soldiers in the US Army's 4th Brigade, 1st Infantry Division raised their hands in salute as the body of a fallen comrade was whisked into the moonless Baghdad night aboard a Black Hawk helicopter.

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The soldier was one of three killed Tuesday in a pair of roadside-bomb attacks – just four days after their battalion set out to establish a combat outpost in the city's Al Amel neighborhood.

The troops are among those that began arriving a month ago in a push to pacify Iraq's restive capital. And for those who saluted the departing helicopter, the deaths sharply underscored the perils of stepped-up patrols in urban areas. That approach is a U-turn from the previous plan that had American soldiers living in fortified bases and going out on occasional patrols.

But the neighborhood outposts are at the heart of the new US and Iraqi plan to stem the sectarian violence that has engulfed Baghdad and to slowly convince residents that Iraqi forces, especially the national police, are there to serve them and not to facilitate the activities of militias and extremist groups.

US troops face multiple challenges. They must protect themselves from car bombs, snipers, and increasingly sophisticated and lethal roadside bombs. They will have to act as policemen and moderators in a complex local struggle that few of them fathom as they lead efforts to revitalize entire sections of the city.

And they have to work side-by-side with Iraqi forces who, despite some signs of progress, still have a long way to go in demonstrating loyalty, discipline, and, most important, a willingness to lead the fight.

The anatomy of a security outpost

Shortly before midnight Friday, soldiers from the 4th Brigade's 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment's Alpha Company began moving out. Dozens of tractors, tanks, flat-bed trucks transported 10-ft.-high concrete blocks and reams of barbed wire through deserted streets toward Amel and nearby Jihad.

Both areas are located on the capital's west side, just south of the airport road, which has seen numerous fatal shootings and roadside bombs.

Alpha Company's destination was the Abu Jaafar al-Mansur sports club and judo studio in Amel. Before the US-led invasion in March 2003, it was a wedding hall and social club owned by one of Saddam Hussein's bodyguards.

A tank knocked down part of the building's walled perimeter as soldiers darted out of their Humvees and began carrying out a meticulously synchronized plan to secure it. The Iraqi caretaker, who had been expecting them but was not told of the exact time of their arrival, was roused out of bed to greet them.

The club's rooms were inspected one-by-one. The soldiers began hauling in bright yellow chainsaws, boxes of canned food, and cereal bars. Backpacks and folded cots piled up at the entrance.

At dawn Saturday, some exhausted soldiers sprawled themselves out on the floor of the weight room for a few hours of sleep. Magazine cut-outs of famous bodybuilders adorn the walls. Others began boarding up the windows of the hall, which had not seen any students for months, says caretaker Jawad Kadhem.

Amel, a mixed area, has been ripped apart by sectarian violence. In the wake of the bombing of a revered Shiite mosque in February 2006, and a retaliatory wave of Sunni mosque bombings and killings by Shiite militias, armed Sunni men in Amel began driving out Shiite families.

Then, with the launch of a security crackdown by the government of Nouri al-Maliki in the summer of 2006, Shiite militiamen, many loyal to the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, descended on Amel and began to drive out Sunni families with the tacit approval and sometimes direct help of the predominantly Shiite national police, says Kadhem.

He is a Shiite, but prides himself on getting along with everyone in Amel, where he was born and has lived all his life. He has already lost a brother and a 16-year-old nephew to the sectarian killing.

Mistrust plagues US effort

By mid-morning Saturday, cranes started placing concrete blocks in the middle of a wide street just outside the new US outpost to separate it from a row of homes. Mohammed Jasim peered out of the gate of his house. Two US soldiers waved at him. He hesitated for a moment before coming out.

"We welcome your presence. It will encourage displaced families to return. We are peace lovers," says Mr. Jasim, as his neighbor Sarhan Abbas and his three sons also emerged out of their home.