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Front-Line Baghdad: Stryker Brigade


In Iraq, U.S. and Iraqi forces are trying to bring the violence under control in some of Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods. Among the American units involved in the expanded operations, the Tomahawks Battalion of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team from Alaska. NPR's Tom Bowman spent some time with the Strykers and he sent this report from the Iraqi capital.

TOM BOWMAN: It's early morning and four armored vehicles roll out of their base in Baghdad. Their mission is to clean up one of the city's most violent neighborhoods, aptly named Jihad, Arabic for holy war.

Each day bodies are dumped in vacant lots. Shiite death squads are forcibly removing Sunnis there. There are reports of torture houses.

Lieutenant Colonel JOHN NORRIS (Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army): I'm Colonel Norris, commander of the Stryker soldiers. Hello.

Do you have time? I was hoping to talk to you a little bit about…

Colonel MOHAMMED (Iraqi Police Commander, Baghdad): Yes, yes.

Lt. Col. NORRIS: My soldiers are now operating in your area.

Col. MOHAMMED: Yes, yes, yes.

Lt. Col. NORRIS: Good.

BOWMAN: Lieutenant Colonel John Norris and Colonel Mohammed, the police commander, couldn't be more different. Norris is compact and intense, with the mountain twang of his native Kentucky. Mohammed is wary and paunchy. He cradles two cell phones and orders his staff to bring a tray of soft drinks. Norris and Mohammed talk through a translator.

Lt. Col. NORRIS: How is the security in the area?

Col. MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) Is it specifically doctor's neighborhood? The homeowners left their homes and now it's occupied by the militias. And we have the names and locations of the insurgents.

BOWMAN: Norris presses him.

Lt. Col. NORRIS: Are they so strong that you and 456 policemen that you mentioned you have cannot action these?

BOWMAN: Mohammed says he does not have the authority. He says he's outgunned by the fighters. Marine Major Darrell(ph) Crane(ph) sits nearby. He is part of the national police training team. Crane shakes his head.

Major DARRELL CRANE (U.S. Marines): He won't operate without Coalition presence. He says they're afraid. I don't think very highly of him. I think he's corrupt.

BOWMAN: Crane says besides avoiding his duty, the police commander is an ethnic Shiite who focuses on wrongdoing only in the Sunni areas.

Privately, many other officers and soldiers say Iraqis have little trust in the national police. They are widely seen as infiltrated by the sectarian militias, or ill-trained or corrupt. The Americans say they must find ways to work with the police, encourage them to improve over time.

Col. MOHAMMED: I want to clean the area.

Lt. Col. NORRIS: Well then, let's do it together. I am prepared to go whenever you have actionable intelligence.

Col. MOHAMMED: (Unintelligible)

BOWMAN: The Stryker unit has already spent a year in Iraq. The 3,700 soldiers were patrolling in the north around the city of Mosul. They were set to go home in August. Then one day they were extended four months and ordered to Baghdad. Hundreds who had already made in back to Alaska were recalled. Among them was Specialist Zachary(ph) Sherman(ph).

Specialist ZACHARY SHERMAN (U.S. Army): We had a lot of people who were, I mean, just downright crying when the news first came over, and we had others that were stoic about the entire ordeal.

BOWMAN: Sherman says he was eager to return to duty. He wanted to be with his fellow soldiers and help Iraqis. His family didn't approve.

Specialist SHERMAN: Actually, it got to a point my father called my unit commander and said he wanted me psychologically evaluated because he didn't feel I was fit to make decisions.

BOWMAN: Sherman says his unit has made progress, but he says it will be some time before Iraqi forces can do that on their own.

Specialist SHERMAN: It's going to take work. It's going to take a lot more cooperation. The people don't trust them right now. The army and the police. The local populace said that there's a lot of times the army and the police are turning a blind eye and they're allowing masked gunmen through checkpoints.

BOWMAN: Jihad is a vast urban plain that extends into the hazy distance. Wide avenues are bordered by trash-strewn lots and low brick houses. Men stand in clusters near faded storefronts, a few fingering prayer beads. There are many hard stares. Only the children smile and wave. The convoy stops. Norris approaches a man and asks about some bodies found at the end of the street. Does he know anything?

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

TRANSLATOR: He says he doesn't (unintelligible) now I'm standing with you I really terrified.

Lt. Col. NORRIS: I did not mean to put you in danger. I will leave…

BOWMAN: The man gestures down the block toward a half dozen men seated at tables playing cards and dominoes. Norris approaches them and they barely look up. He soon turns and walks away.

TRANSLATOR: Since most of the people, like, they don't have the confidence and the trust we are doing, we are committed to the job.

Lt. Col. NORRIS: Well, that's about to change.

BOWMAN: There is more hope later in the day. Norris gets a call from the police colonel. His source has agreed to meet. The sun is setting as they arrive once more at the police station. Soon a man approaches wearing a dishdasha, a traditional Arab garment. He talks about mosques where weapons are hidden, houses that house fighters.

TRANSLATOR: He said they know the houses of the insurgents.

Lt. Col. NORRIS: Okay. You want to highlight them on the map?

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

Lt. Col. NORRIS: Hey, Sargeant Lane(ph).

Sargeant LANE: Sir?

Lt. Col. NORRIS: You got my map?

BOWMAN: He points to a vacant house, once used by the Russian ambassador.

TRANSLATOR: This is the Russian ambassador house.

Lt. Col. NORRIS: Russian ambassador house?

TRANSLATOR: Russian ambassador house there. He said they use it like a torture chamber over there. They torture people there.

BOWMAN: The question is always how good is this information? And if it's true, can the soldiers get there fast enough to make a difference? Suddenly the meeting is interrupted by a burst of machine gun fire. Norris grabs his radio.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

TRANSLATOR: Snipers around there…

Lt. Col. NORRIS: Our snipers or theirs?

TRANSLATOR: No, theirs.

Lt. Col. NORRIS: Okay. Roger.

BOWMAN: But by the time the Strikers get there, the shooters have melted into the darkness. The next day, they search the neighborhood, house by house.

(Soundbite of banging on door)

BOWMAN: Five soldiers stream into a house, rushing room-to-room, searching for weapons. They find no one home and nothing out of the ordinary. Then, the homeowner returns. He is a trim, well-dressed older man with white hair. He says he was away at church with his wife. He says it's the second time his front door has been kicked in by American soldiers.

Unidentified Homeowner: Now this day, today, again, the same thing happened. We come into our home and we saw the wooden door broken.

Lt. Col. NORRIS: Well, I apologize for breaking your door. I don't want to break your door.

Unidentified Homeowner: I mean, if you had told anyone?

Did you find anything in my house, abnormal?

Lt. Col. NORRIS: No, I did not.

BOWMAN: The soldiers move on. Another man tells him of the violence in the neighborhood and points across the street.

TRANSLATOR: This is the two bodies beside the school, or near the - and you see the two bodies (unintelligible).

BOWMAN: Soldiers hand out supplies and soccer balls at the school, the two-story white building surrounded by a wall. Women and children approach. An elderly woman, covered from head to foot in a black abaya, says she has been forced from her home.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

TRANSLATOR: Yeah. He said they slide a note underneath the door. They tell them to leave. I said we didn't pay attention to the first one. This the second time they slide a note with a bullet.

Lt. Col. NORRIS: She knows exactly where these guys, they live, that threatened them?


Lt. Col. NORRIS: Go get my map out of the Stryker please.

BOWMAN: The soldiers collect one more tip. The tips from the police source the night before fell flat. But another source proved more valuable - a cache of mortars was seized nearby. Norris is not discouraged. Talking with the neighbors, he says it's clear they are being terrorized.

Lt. Col. NORRIS: It's been proven by the bodies that's been dumped here, but we just can't pinpoint it yet - in terms of who's doing it, and where they're doing it, and how they're doing it.

BOWMAN: Norris and his soldiers will follow up on the latest sources. More searches and raids. All part of the slow, painstaking process of trying to bring peace to Jihad.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Baghdad.

SIEGEL: Harvard University drops early admissions, a move that may have ripples across higher education. That story and a Clemson football player who gets special dispensation from the NCAA so that he can care for his 11-year-old brother. That's next on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.