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In Baghdad, fighting their 'Alamo'

Snipers and bombs are daunting foes in the security push. A U.S. captain fears it may be 'their surge, not ours.'

May 23, 2007|Garrett Therolf | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The 16-man platoon from Ft. Hood, Texas, uses a decrepit Iraqi national police compound for its outpost. Chickens, turkeys and sheep laze on the lawn, drenched by an overflowing septic tank. Each day, the soldiers venture out for a few hours onto the dangerous streets of what was once a fashionable Sunni Arab neighborhood.

Led by a 24-year-old West Point graduate, the Americans weave their Humvees among villas commandeered by Sunni fighters who snipe at them from rooftops, bury bombs in the streets and evade searches with the help of two men dubbed the "moped twins," who relay the platoon's position by walkie-talkie at nearly every turn.

The troops stay overnight in makeshift quarters, nursing their wounds and attempting to hold onto any gains they've made through the day in the now-downtrodden Amiriya and Khadra districts.

The latest U.S.-Iraq security plan, based on occupying neighborhood bases and having close contact with the community, is nowhere more intense and focused than here in west Baghdad, where Iraqi forces battle daily with homegrown Sunni Muslim insurgents and foreign Islamist fighters.

Five U.S. soldiers have died this month in Amiriya, victims of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, and snipers. Since the arrival of additional troops in February, the square-mile area patrolled by 1st Lt. Schuyler Williamson's platoon and others from the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, has been the site of 300 IEDs buried in or alongside the road. An Army intelligence map uses small red blast symbols to mark bomb sites. The symbols obscure entire thoroughfares.

Soldiers here now openly declare pessimism for the mission's chances, unofficially referring to their splinter of heavily fortified land as "the Alamo."

"Sometimes," said Brendan Gallagher, the captain who oversees Williamson, "we like to comfort ourselves when we are taking a lot of IEDs and casualties by saying that the enemy is desperate, they are doing this because they are scared. But how many times can they actually be desperate? I sometimes worry that this period will end up going down here as their surge, not ours."

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The 'Texan militia'

The soldiers in Williamson's platoon have patrolled Iraq elbow-to-elbow in Humvees since November. Among them is Sgt. Andrew Zamacona, nicknamed "Tackleberry" after the character from the movie "Police Academy" who is always gung-ho for a fight. And there's Pfc. Alonzo Duncan, a former mechanic who reenlisted two years ago, at 40. They labeled him "Blue" after a character in the film "Old School" who wants to join the college fraternity in his old age.

Williamson calls himself the governor of Texas as he patrols Khadra. He refers to his soldiers as the Texan militia.

Over the course of four recent days, his soldiers were struck repeatedly by IEDs, one of which blasted a hole through an Army medic's foot, requiring him to be sent home. The platoon was also attacked by snipers; a bullet ripped through the fingers of an Iraqi national police captain accompanying the Americans on a joint patrol.

Checkpoints operated by Iraqi police at two entry points into Khadra came under gunfire several times a day, and a desecrated corpse suspected to be that of an Iraqi policeman was found hanging May 15 from a lamppost in Amiriya.

Col. J.B. Burton, the top commander of the brigade that includes the platoon, acknowledges difficulties but said that American and Iraqi troops were making progress elsewhere in the capital. "The troops in Khadra and Amiriya don't always get to see that," he said.

For their sacrifice, the troops here have been able to make minimal gains in increasing contact with the Iraqi populace and helping with trash collection, fuel delivery, sewage repairs and the delivery of other essential services. They have also continued to be diverted by tedious, largely fruitless searches for their attackers. Williamson said they find about one suspect for every 15 explosions.

On May 14, a Monday, the soldiers began such a search from Camp Liberty, where they had been spending a break from their Khadra outpost, enjoying lattes and cheese grits at the sprawling military base near Baghdad's airport. A Bradley fighting vehicle earlier in the day had struck a bomb buried in a road in Amiriya 15 minutes away, and the platoon was assigned to a door-to-door search for those responsible.

Before leaving Liberty, the men formed a circle in the midafternoon heat, their arms wrapped around one another's shoulders, and recited: "Please bring us home to our families, Lord, in your strong name we pray."

In the Bradley's cramped quarters, 20-year-old Pfc. Optaciano Araujo carried his M-4 with 210 rounds of ammunition and a picture taped on the gun's stock of the 4-month-old daughter he'd never met. He said he had twice been in vehicles when they were hit by IEDs, and his convoy had been hit eight times more.

"We're about to get shot standing in the middle of the street again," he said.

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