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Sunday, April 25, 2004

Welcome to Sadr City

Welcome to Sadr City

Mean Streets

April 4 began as a routine day in the slum. A 19-man patrol in four Humvees was escorting three Iraqi "honey wagons" on their rounds collecting sewage. Platoon leader Sgt. Shane Aguero noticed one unusual thing, though. "People were throwing more rocks than usual at the trucks and at our gunners. Our work crews were threatened at each stop. At the last place about 400 people said [to the workers] "˜if you come back we'll kill you.'" All three drivers hauled their cargo to the disposal site, dumped it and quit on the spot.

Next the patrol encountered a number of armed men in a mosque and told them the weapons would have to be confiscated. The militants refused, and the Humvees moved on after some muddled negotiations about how the weapons would be turned in at a future date. Around 5:40 p.m., the patrol rolled past the Sadr Bureau, headquarters for the political wing of his organization. Aguero noticed at least 200 men out front who "quickly ran away when we arrived. Another 15 or 20 people outside were waving their hands at us"”but to say "˜stay away'? Or to say hello? We couldn't tell". A block later, the soldiers heard a few rounds of small arms fire. "We couldn't tell where it came from, it was just three to five rounds," says Sgt. Jerry Swope of Austin, Texas, who was in the last vehicle, "we figured it was a lone gunman."

Aguero decided to try to detain the shooter. But as they tried to determine the source of the gunfire, suddenly more gunmen joined in from street-level and form second-story balconies. "We began to engage the enemy, then got back in our vehicles and headed north," he says. Sudden, Aguero found his unit heading into a Mad Max gauntlet of burning tires and road obstacles of every imaginable description: concrete blocks, metal market stalls, air conditioners, scrap metal, truck axles, even refrigerators. The burning debris put out so much choking black smoke that visibility was down to 300 meters.

The street had become "a 300-meter-long kill zone," recalls Aguero. The vehicles swerved and ran onto sidewalks, rolling on the rims of flat tires, as gunmen kept up the barrage of bullets. Suddenly Sgt. Yihjyh Chen, gunner in the lead truck, collapsed after taking a hit. The Iraqi translator in his vehicle began administering first aid. Another soldier was shot, and began bleeding from the mouth. Then two of the Humvees became disabled. Aguero yelled at one driver to gun the engine to get his Humvee moving. That's when the engine literally fell out. It was time to bail. As they'd been drilled to do, the soldiers set out to strip the disabled vehicles of sensitive items and to "Zee off the radio""”to ensure critical communications codes and equipment don't fall into enemy hands.

Now the problem was how to secure everyone in just two Humvees. "I said, "˜Okay, take that alley 250 meters to the left," recalls Aguero. The two still-functioning vehicles pulled next to a three-story building, one facing forward and the other in the opposite direction. Aguero led the remaining soldiers on foot to the door, kicked it down, secured four startled Iraqi men in one room, and set up machine-gun positions on the roof. ("The Iraqis were scared," says Aguero. But not entirely hostile. "when it was over they tried to give us water," recalls Swope.)

All the while, gunmen kept up a battery of small-arms fire. Swope stayed with his vehicle to keep communications open to the battalion and the quick reaction force. Aguero ran up and down the stairs, checking the defensive positions on the roof and in the street. By this time, Iraqi militants were in the adjacent alley, lobbing grenades. One detonated a few feet from Aguero, peppering him with shrapnel and deafening him temporarily in one ear. Over the radio, Swope heard that the first quick-reaction force (QRF) sent to assist them had been ambushed two streets away. "That's when we realized the uprising was citywide," says Swope, "And we were going to be there awhile." (In all, Swope stayed in the alley, manning his radio, for three nerve-wracking hours.)

The gunfight had erupted just fifteen minutes after Volesky formally took command. "It was in my box," he says. The radio was alive with details of the engagement. "Contact! Contact! ...we're taking fire, heavy fire." From the camp other soldiers could easily hear explosions, and they saw the ominous arcs of tracer fire on the horizon. One of the quick reaction forces rolled out of Camp Eagle about at 2200 hours with Humvees, Bradleys and a couple big LMTV trucks. A civil-affairs team was part of the force. "We knew a big engagement was on," recalls Capt. Jeff Embree. Casualties had already begun to pour into Camp Eagle, soldiers moaning and bleeding in a truck driving noisily on its rims. Embree, who was in the last Humvee of the 18-vehicle convoy, says "we could see the tracer fire, there was a mess of traffic on the radio."

As the story notes, there are 2.5 million people in Sadr City. If 10 percent decide the US should leave, there is nothing we could do to stay.
It is a miracle only 12 soldiers got killed this day. If Bush has decided to move into Najaf, daily firefights in Sadr City will be common.

posted by Steve @ 11:00:00 AM

11:00:00 AM

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