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Fallouja Was Not the Prize Brigade Expected

'Spartan' soldiers credited with ending the war early were expecting to go home. Instead, they're headed to Iraq's center of resistance.

June 03, 2003|John Hendren | Times Staff Writer

FALLOUJA, Iraq — Ask a soldier who fought here and you'll probably hear that Col. David Perkins' "Spartan" Brigade stopped the clock on the war in Iraq.

Perkins' decision to roll the brigade's tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles into Saddam Hussein's complex of Baghdad palaces during a nine-hour battle and spend the night -- despite having met almost none of the assigned criteria for doing so -- is widely credited with ending the war early.

After nine months in the Persian Gulf, more than any other American military commander, Perkins had been expecting an order to send his soldiers home. Instead, his soldiers' "reward" for doing such a good job will be to stay at least two months longer -- at the site of the most violent postwar attacks against American soldiers -- while officials at the Pentagon, where Perkins is due to start work this month, send other troops back to the U.S.

Today, the war-weary soldiers of the 2nd Brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division will begin moving their tanks, Humvees and Bradley fighting vehicles into Fallouja, the lethal center of Iraqi resistance to the American occupation. In Fallouja, guerrillas have repeatedly ambushed American troops with fatal volleys of rocket-propelled grenades and rifle fire.

With Perkins' 4,000 soldiers replacing the sparsely scattered 1,200 soldiers of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, military strategists intend to make Fallouja the most occupied city in Iraq. The brigade's presence is a testimony to the aggressive reputation its soldiers have earned within the military, and to the U.S.-led coalition's inability to quell an escalating resistance to its occupation. Their motto: "Send me." Their new assignment: Fix it.

"They've had troops where we're having battalions," Perkins told the brigade's senior officers Monday in a briefing that mapped out their new assignment. "The goal is to solve the problem out here, make it go away, and then to bring every soldier back."

At this point, the brigade has already lost eight soldiers in combat, and every remaining soldier has a story of sacrifice.

They've lived in the mice-ridden desert tents of Kuwait, in their vehicles, in a palace strewn with debris from the bombs of the U.S. Air Force, in a dingy, looted Baath Party complex and, as of this week, at a former amusement park called Dreamland.

Meanwhile, life elsewhere moves on.

"My son turns 3 in July, and I've missed every single birthday," said Maj. Roger Shuck.

Pvt. Clayton Harper said he has been forced to put off his wedding indefinitely. And Staff Sgt. George Jones said he has "lost a wife and two dogs out of it." Jones, a lanky, tanned Virginian with sad blue eyes, discovered his house was empty after reaching his wife on her cell phone for a rare call and asking why she wasn't home.

As the troops remain behind, Perkins himself will leave for the Pentagon later this month for his new post as a policy advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But first he plans to enact a strategy designed to wipe out resistance to the American occupation. Just as the key to conquering Iraq was capturing the network of palaces at the center of Baghdad, he said, the "center of gravity" for anti-American guerrillas who must be stopped is Fallouja.

Initially, U.S. intelligence experts viewed the enemy in Fallouja as lingering Fedayeen Saddam paramilitary fighters and hard-liners from Hussein's Baath Party and had planned a stark crackdown on the city. But a deeper analysis of intelligence caused a reassessment, said Lt. Col. Eric Wesley, the brigade's executive officer.

Military intelligence officers now say they do not think the opposition is centrally coordinated, so they are opting for a softer "carrot-and-stick" approach that seeks to undercut support for the guerrillas.

Beginning Friday, an 11 p.m. curfew will be strictly enforced, Perkins said. Those who cooperate will be rewarded with money and public works projects performed by a battalion of engineers. Those who don't will be excluded, starting with a "black list" of 50 anti-coalition sheiks and other leaders, officials said.

And those who attack U.S. troops will be killed or captured, Perkins said.

"Their measure of success is a dead American," Perkins said. "When we find a threat, we deal with the threat with finality, but with a minimum of collateral damage.... They will not be able to turn peaceful demonstrations into riots, and they will not be able to attack Americans without paying the ultimate penalty."

Brigade leaders plan to reach out to the sheiks in some the region's 160 mosques, many of whom have issued fiery sermons condemning American soldiers and urging resistance against the occupying authorities.

It's an uphill battle. Among the clerics is Sheik Jamal Shaker Mahmoud, who believes the oft-repeated myths that American troops use night-vision goggles to see through women's abayas, hand out "porno candy" to children in lewd wrappers and used chemical weapons to seize Baghdad's international airport.

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