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Soldiers on Edge in Police Role

Errant drivers and brazen looters create risky confrontations that frustrate an Army company trying to keep order in Baghdad.

April 12, 2003|Geoffrey Mohan | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — There are many tallies in war. For the Army's Cyclone Company, the 4th Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment, Friday's included these: Four men saved a 10-story apartment building from looters, at least temporarily. Four others killed a woman and child.

The soldiers involved said the incidents, which apparently followed proper orders, left them frustrated and shaken. They reflect the sudden shift in the nature of the fight, with U.S. soldiers suddenly thrust into roles as police officers seeking to fend off or control an unstable populace.

The civilian deaths came on a span that U.S. forces call Bridge Six, where the Army's 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment had posted signs warning that no one should pass. Two tanks from Cyclone Company were sent to help guard it.

The rules for dealing with Iraqi vehicles approaching U.S. checkpoints have been clear since a car exploded two weeks ago in Najaf, killing four soldiers: Fire warning shots, and if the vehicle doesn't stop, fire on it.

Several hours before dawn Friday, a 2 1/2-ton truck similar to the troop transports used by Iraqi soldiers sped onto Bridge Six from the east side. Soldiers opened fire and the truck stopped. The driver fled.

About half an hour later, said soldiers who were present, speaking on the condition of anonymity, another truck sped toward the concertina wire spread across the bridge. Warning shots failed to slow it down; it stopped only when a shot flattened the right front tire. Six men and about four women climbed out of the back and fled, one witness said.

But several other men hid behind the truck, peeking at the soldiers, who shouted warnings for them to leave. After more than an hour, the Americans sprayed machine-gun fire in a "Z" pattern across the front of the truck. A driver spilled out, wounded, and rolled on the ground. For the next several hours, a tank and its four-man crew tried to chase away the remaining men. At one point, they got to within 30 meters, still trying to determine whether the truck was a military vehicle.

"You couldn't tell," said one soldier. "It was the same style as we've been blowing up."

The men called for medics for the wounded driver, but said they were told the Red Crescent would have to take care of it. As the sun began to rise, the last of the hiding men ran away, they said. Soldiers moved up and examined the truck. In the front seat they found a woman and a child about 6 years old, fatally wounded.

"I killed some kid today. That's the one thing I didn't want to do," one soldier said.

"It tore us up," said another. "The first thing we did was call up and say we wanted off that bridge."

No weapons were found.

Capt. Steven T. Barry, 29, commander of Cyclone Company, noted that as many as 11 U.S. soldiers had been killed or wounded in car-bomb attacks in recent weeks.

"If they want to run checkpoints and ignore warning shots, I can't do anything for them," he said. "It's a combination of these people driving recklessly and soldiers who don't want to die in a car bombing."

Meanwhile, three bridges to the south, a man who said his name was Ahmed Saleh walked up to Sgt. 1st Class Robert Walker, 39, asking in halting English for help stopping looters. Evidence of their handiwork was visible below the bridge, where the collapsed remains of the 28th of April Shopping Center sign glowed like a barbecue grill.

Walker took Spc. Jamie Gandy and two medics, Spc. Oscar Gavidia and Sgt. Luther Robinson, and headed off. The military had established only vague guidelines on how forces should respond to looting, which was in its second day.

"The main thing I'm trying to prevent is people-on-people violence," said Col. David Perkins, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade. "Sorting out whose sofa is whose is not what we do."

Soldiers should stop small incidents of looting, Perkins decided, but should not meddle in a large-scale sacking. The distinction didn't matter to Walker, a former drill sergeant. The son of a thrifty Nebraska farmer, he had seen enough.

Saleh motioned toward a drab concrete apartment complex behind the smoldering shopping center. "This building -- families," he said. "Please. Everyone here is poor."

Looters, who outnumbered the soldiers 40 to 1, had turned the building's courtyard into a thieves' bazaar. Men, women and children loaded carts with refrigerators, countertop stoves, dishes, clothing. They threw lighter items from balconies down to the waving hands of old women. The stairs were backed up with people hauling booty.

Walker fired his 9mm pistol into the air. "You must go!" he shouted, with Saleh translating.

Gavidia, 23, and Gandy, 19, both from Georgia, and Robinson, 31, from North Carolina, fanned out to stop looters coming down the staircases.

It was hard to find an apartment door that had not been pried open. Personal photos, papers and valueless items lay scattered in the tiny, two-room, one-bathroom flats.

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