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AFTER THE WAR

Death Shadows U.S. Troops in Iraq

Recent killings have frazzled soldiers, many of whom weeks ago felt like heroic liberators.

May 10, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The war in Iraq is not over, but from boot level it hardly appears the same one launched by allied forces on March 20. Soldiers now find themselves in a conflict with few battles but no peace, trying to carry out missions they never trained for, and dying all the while.

On Thursday, a man on a Baghdad bridge came up behind a soldier directing traffic, put a pistol to the back of his skull and shot him dead. A sniper beside a bridge just downriver killed another U.S. Army soldier by shooting him in the head. Some fellow soldiers say this kind of dying -- and the tedious vulnerability that has come to mark their days -- is harder to accept than the heavy battles early in the war and their requisite casualties.

"This is the third 'peacekeeping' mission I've been on," Spc. Brandon Jenkins, 27, said Friday, scoffing at the word. "I'd rather just be at war. I'd rather be shooting at people and them shooting at me and just have a war."

The names of the soldiers killed Thursday in eastern Baghdad were added to a list of casualties that continues to grow as troops and officials struggle to rein in anarchy a month after Baghdad fell.

Pfc. Marlin Rockhold, the 23-year-old member of the 3rd Infantry Division who was hit by the sniper, and the other soldier, a 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment member whose identity had not yet been released, were both slain in front of milling children, women coming home from the market and vendors selling cigarettes and sodas.

Swarms of people and vehicles were crossing the narrow bridges. Battered taxis idled just yards away, their drivers chatting in the dust and sun. The shooter with the handgun was somewhere in the throng. The sniper may have been as well. Neither has been caught.

The soldiers' assault rifles and nearby comrades could provide little protection in such circumstances. The men were, in military parlance, "soft targets" who died as many soldiers in Iraq are dying these days: with no idea anything is amiss.

Their deaths have left other troops -- many of whom had been feeling like heroic liberators a few weeks ago -- somber, nervous and deflated.

Standing guard Friday in the courtyard of a looted Baghdad bank, Cpl. Richard MacDougal extinguished one Marlboro and lighted another. He's been away from his two young children so long -- eight months -- that when he called home the day before, his 6-year-old son had nothing more to say than "Hey."

"We're sitting ducks," MacDougal said. "And there's nothing here worth dying for anymore."

As soon as the big battles ended, commanders and noncommissioned officers began lecturing their soldiers on the dangers that remained. At Camp New Jersey, Kuwait, days before his troops entered an already-conquered Iraq, Army Maj. Craig Aaron chewed out members of the 4th Infantry Division for shedding the heavy load-bearing equipment (LBE) that holds their canteens, ammunition magazines and bandages.

"I don't care if other units are running around here buck naked," growled Aaron, of the 3-29 Field Artillery Battalion. "Every soldier in this battalion is wearing their LBEs."

The same went for gas masks, helmets and, of course, weapons, despite the 115-degree heat and the fact that the unit had yet to go to war. "People will think, 'The war's over, it's safe,' " said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Springman, commander of the 3-29. "That's when people get killed."

Soldiers are finding Iraq to be a terrifically dangerous place -- perhaps more so today than immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Some seem to have concluded that being a soldier in the world's best-equipped military brings little comfort in a land where many people carry guns and want Americans to leave or to die.

When four Civil Affairs soldiers drove through Baghdad last week, they armed themselves fully, wore their protective gear and took two Humvees as directed. A gunman on a rooftop opened fire. One round pierced a soldier's flak vest at its collar seam, medics said, and traveled through his chest and out his back. He survived.

Another soldier patrolling a Baghdad intersection last week was shot in the head by a gunman in the crowd. Though he survived, two others died last week, one when his tank went into a river, the other when his vehicle crashed as he rushed to aid troops under fire.

On Friday, three more soldiers died and a fourth was injured when their helicopter crashed, lifting the American death toll here to 146. They were flying to pick up an injured child. On April 9, the day the U.S. Army and Marines took control of central Baghdad, 103 U.S. soldiers had been reported dead.

Two soldiers were badly wounded this week when their Humvee ran over an antitank mine. Someone had apparently wrapped the device in a paper bag and placed it on the main route between the capital and Baghdad's international airport.

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