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Law and Order in an Alien Setting

U.S. soldiers policing the streets of Baghdad try to combat crime and search for weapons in an often unwelcoming environment.

June 15, 2003|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The Humvee rolls out of camp, kicking up a thick cloud of lung-choking dust, then twists its way past small children waving and screaming, "Mista! Mista!" and heads into the largest, poorest, rowdiest neighborhood in all of Baghdad.

Lt. Ellis Gordon, 23, Sgt. Brian Nunes, 29, and Spc. Yoshi Yonemori, 21, are out to look for guns, arrest criminals and try to help restore law and order to the streets of Sadr City, the sprawling ghetto known until recently as Saddam City.

The mission will test the young soldiers' patience -- and that of the people they are out to help. It will expose the challenging and dangerous routine that U.S. combat forces here face as they try to act as police in an alien and often unwelcoming environment.

It's 7:15 p.m., and finally the 106-degree heat of Sunday afternoon has begun to ease. There are nearly 2 million residents in the area, and it feels like all of them are in the streets and alleys.

The Humvee is part of a platoon: four vehicles, 12 guys, all from the Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. They stop by a crowded open-air market, though "crowded" doesn't begin to describe the chaotic scene.

Arabic music blares from a speaker. Merchants sell everything from chickens to shoes. Men, women and children -- so many children it is hard to imagine where they all live -- fill the streets.

Gordon climbs out of the Humvee, along with three other officers -- one from each of the other vehicles. With an Iraqi translator, they sprint into the middle of the market.

Children descend on the idling vehicles, again shouting, "Mista! Mista!" Yonemori mimics them. "Mista, mista," he says, laughing to himself. The crowd presses in more. "Mista, money, mista!" Nearby, Kasim Daheem makes a big mistake.

He is trying to sell a handgun in the market when Gordon and the others advance on him. He runs, and that's unwise. Had he put down the weapon and walked away, the soldiers would have taken only the gun. Instead, they take him too. They cuff his hands behind his back and put a bag over his head so he can't see the maps inside the military vehicles.

It is barely 7:30. One gun, a bag of ammo, one prisoner -- and a heavy sweat. There's no time to rest. A slug of water, and they're off.

Gordon and the same three guys head down an alley at a brisk pace, weapons pointing down. Again a crowd follows. "Mista! Mista!" the Iraqis call.

"Be quiet!" Gordon hollers in English, turning to face them. The crowd quiets -- for a moment. The soldiers pick up the pace across a dirt soccer field. Their steps quicken, the crowd gets bigger. The chanting, catcalls and hooting grow so loud that the men can hardly hear one another. The crowd is not issuing direct threats, but it is menacing, making the officers' jobs harder.

Down another alley, through a courtyard, into a small building and up the stairs. Iraqis especially dislike this part of the patrols: American soldiers barging into their homes, seeing the women. But the Americans say there is no other way to confiscate guns; they can't knock on the door and wait.

Up they go, two flights, three flights, past a man reeking of alcohol, up onto the roof.

"That lady has a gun!" one soldier hollers, pointing across an alley to an old woman dressed in black on a nearby roof.

Back down the stairs, running up the alley, the crowd following, screaming, chanting. The soldiers run through a metal gate, past a man lying on the bare cement, his leg wrapped in bandages from a gunshot wound, past a startled young woman breast-feeding her child, and up onto the other roof.

The machine gun is hidden under a blanket. The soldiers take it and run back downstairs, where the shaken old woman offers them water from a bent metal bowl. They decline. "Ask her why she has this," one soldier says to the translator.

"It's for us," she replies, implying it's for her family's safety. But the U.S.-led occupation authority that rules Iraq has banned possession of machine guns, so the Americans take the weapon.

"Tell her she can have a handgun or an AK, not a machine gun," the soldier says as he walks away.

The soldiers can't stop, not for a minute. They can't allow themselves to appear vulnerable -- though they are clearly outnumbered and possibly outgunned. If the crowd were to turn on them, it would get ugly. They are huffing back across the soccer field. All this running and climbing, with weapons and bulletproof vests and helmets.

The crowd following behind has swelled to easily 100 young men and children. Now they're throwing rocks. Small white pebbles, then large stones. The rocks are dinging the four soldiers, bouncing off their helmets and chest plates.

The children chant, "Ali Baba!" -- a nickname for thieves. Flames shoot off a rooftop where someone is burning trash.

"Is that a rock?" Gordon shouts when a stone hits another soldier's leg.

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