Mean Streets

Sadr City has always been a volatile community, even in Saddam Hussein's day. The bloodshed and confusion that erupted there today are reminders to U.S. troops that people tend to blame America for anything and everything that goes wrong, even when it doesn't make sense. At least two mortars hit a crowded chicken market in the Ourfalli area of Sadr City this morning, killing at least 13 Iraqis and injuring 30. Bloodied human remains littered the market, and anguished residents held the parts up in front of television cameras, blaming U.S. helicopters for the carnage. A dead donkey lay on the street, its intestines spilling out and a sign on its back declaring "This is Bush."

This sprawling Shiite slum in northern Baghdad, home to at least 2 million, is the original base of support for radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Jaish al-Mehdi, or Mehdi Army. This week, Sadr delivered an incendiary warning, threatening suicide attacks against coalition troops if they conduct military operations in the holy city of Najaf, where he is based. "If there is an assault on our cities or on our religious authorities, we will be time bombs," he declared at a Friday prayer service in Najaf, "[We] will shed blood to keep our holy city."

If the coalition moves against Sadr, areas in Sadr City could erupt in violence again. The community already featured a ferocious battle on April 4, which First Armored Division Commander Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey called "the biggest gunfight since the fall of Baghdad a year ago." Inevitably, because of the dense cityscape, soldiers on the ground compared the conflict to the Hollywood film "Blackhawk Down," about the bloody 1993 incident in Mogadishu that led to the U.S. military pullout from Somalia.

But Iraq is not Somalia. "Culturally and politically the two countries don't even come close," says Col. Robert "Abe" Abrams, commander of troops in eastern Baghdad, including Sadr City, "The analogy is fallacious." Mainly because Somalia was a limited, humanitarian intervention in an obscure African country from which Washington could easily walk away. Not so with oil-rich and strategically important Iraq. This country, and its labyrinthine cities, promise to require U.S. involvement, especially on security matter, for years to come.

Sadr City is a good taste of what Iraqi urban warfare is all about. Before April 4, the last armed engagement between militants and U.S. troops in the community was way back in October, 2003. Still, tensions had been building since late March. That's when the coalition shut down al Howza, a newspaper published by Sadr's organization, for 60 days on charges of "inciting violence." In response, Sadr's followers began staging massive peaceful protests in Baghdad, culminating in a stunning April 3 display of 10,000 man marching on the streets of Sadr City, including black-clad al-Mehdi militiamen wielding ritual scimitars. Colleagues armed with rifles assumed sniper positions on the rooftops.

Inside Camp Eagle, perched on the dusty eastern edge of Sadr City, many of the U.S. officers and soldiers were new arrivals. Most of the 700 troops of the First Cav's 2nd battalion, 5th cavalry regiment had arrived in country just the previous week; they were replacing units of the First Armored Division (1AD), most of which hadn't yet departed. Battalion commander Lt. Col. Gary Volesky and 38 of his officers had been in country for nearly a month. His company commanders had been busy conducting orientation patrols--called "right-hand rides"--with their predecessors to get familiar with the city in preparation for the transfer of authority. Volesky was due to take command formally at 1800 hours on April 4.

Their new domain, Sadr City, was called Saddam City before liberation--and it was a noxious slum back then, too. After Saddam Hussein's ouster, residents renamed their community after Moqtada al-Sadr's father, a moderate cleric who was murdered by Saddam. Nowhere is the squalor and deprivation of the Shiite underclass more evident than in this part of town, where makeshift shacks and markets metastasized as the population grew. The edge of town is a post-apocalyptic moonscape, with grungy scrap yards full of looted and gun-shot bits of metal and mounds of empty artillery shells. In the teeming, fly-blown market, vendors stash foodstuffs such as eggs and tomatoes and chickens in bamboo crates on the ground just inches from puddles of viscous, shiny black mud. ("You're lucky if it's mud," jokes one U.S. officer.)

Piles of rotten vegetables, soiled plastic bags, and scruffy goats feeding on refuse blight the median strips on main boulevards. In fact, cleaning up the trash and sewage was and is very much on Volesky's agenda for winning the hearts and minds of Sadr City residents. The community's sewage system was originally built for 720,000 people, and was last cleaned out in 1996. "Now there are 2.5 million people here," sighs Volesky, a back-slapping native of Washington state, who greets soldiers with "hey there, big man," and who replies, when asked how he's doing, "better'n I deserve."

April 4 began as a routine day in the slum. A 19-man patrol in four Humvees was escorting three Iraqi "honey wagons" on their rounds collecting sewage. Platoon leader 1LT Shane Aguero noticed one unusual thing, though. "People were throwing more rocks than usual at the trucks and at our gunners. Our work crews were threatened at each stop. At the last place about 400 people said [to the workers] 'if you come back we'll kill you.'" All three drivers hauled their cargo to the disposal site, dumped it and quit on the spot.

Next the patrol encountered a number of armed men in a mosque and told them the weapons would have to be confiscated. The militants refused, and the Humvees moved on after some muddled negotiations about how the weapons would be turned in at a future date. Around 5:40 p.m., the patrol rolled past the Sadr Bureau, headquarters for the political wing of his organization. Aguero noticed at least 200 men out front who "quickly ran away when we arrived. Another 15 or 20 people outside were waving their hands at us--but to say 'stay away'? Or to say hello? We couldn't tell". A block later, the soldiers heard a few rounds of small arms fire. "We couldn't tell where it came from, it was just three to five rounds," says Sgt. Jerry Swope of Austin, Texas, who was in the last vehicle, "we figured it was a lone gunman."

Aguero decided to try to detain the shooter. But as they tried to determine the source of the gunfire, suddenly more gunmen joined in from street-level and form second-story balconies. "We began to engage the enemy, then got back in our vehicles and headed north," he says. Sudden, Aguero found his unit heading into a Mad Max gauntlet of burning tires and road obstacles of every imaginable description: concrete blocks, metal market stalls, air conditioners, scrap metal, truck axles, even refrigerators. The burning debris put out so much choking black smoke that visibility was down to 300 meters.

The street had become "a 300-meter-long kill zone," recalls Aguero. The vehicles swerved and ran onto sidewalks, rolling on the rims of flat tires, as gunmen kept up the barrage of bullets. Suddenly Sgt. Yihjyh Chen, gunner in the lead truck, collapsed after taking a hit. The Iraqi translator in his vehicle began administering first aid. Another soldier was shot, and began bleeding from the mouth. Then two of the Humvees became disabled. Aguero yelled at one driver to gun the engine to get his Humvee moving. That's when the engine literally fell out. It was time to bail. As they'd been drilled to do, the soldiers set out to strip the disabled vehicles of sensitive items and to "Zee off the radio"--to ensure critical communications codes and equipment don't fall into enemy hands.

Now the problem was how to secure everyone in just two Humvees. "I said, 'Okay, take that alley 250 meters to the left," recalls Aguero. The two still-functioning vehicles pulled next to a three-story building, one facing forward and the other in the opposite direction. Aguero led the remaining soldiers on foot to the door, kicked it down, secured four startled Iraqi men in one room, and set up machine-gun positions on the roof. ("The Iraqis were scared," says Aguero. But not entirely hostile. "when it was over they tried to give us water," recalls Swope.)

All the while, gunmen kept up a battery of small-arms fire. Swope stayed with his vehicle to keep communications open to the battalion and the quick reaction force. Aguero ran up and down the stairs, checking the defensive positions on the roof and in the street. By this time, Iraqi militants were in the adjacent alley, lobbing grenades. One detonated a few feet from Aguero, peppering him with shrapnel and deafening him temporarily in one ear. Over the radio, Swope heard that the first quick-reaction force (QRF) sent to assist them had been ambushed two streets away. "That's when we realized the uprising was citywide," says Swope, "And we were going to be there awhile." (In all, Swope stayed in the alley, manning his radio, for three nerve-wracking hours.)

The gunfight had erupted just fifteen minutes after Volesky formally took command. "It was in my box," he says. The radio was alive with details of the engagement. "Contact! Contact! ...we're taking fire, heavy fire." From the camp other soldiers could easily hear explosions, and they saw the ominous arcs of tracer fire on the horizon. One of the quick reaction forces rolled out of Camp Eagle about at 2200 hours with Humvees, Bradleys and a couple big LMTV trucks. A civil-affairs team was part of the force. "We knew a big engagement was on," recalls Capt. Jeff Embree. Casualties had already begun to pour into Camp Eagle, soldiers moaning and bleeding in a truck driving noisily on its rims. Embree, who was in the last Humvee of the 18-vehicle convoy, says "we could see the tracer fire, there was a mess of traffic on the radio."

But at the same time, there was a lot of traffic on the road, and civilians standing about the street. "There was a lot of stop-and-go in the traffic, maybe we got a little complacent," recalls Embree with a rueful grim, "And then we hit the market." Or rather, as his laughing colleagues pointed out "Then the market hit us." Suddenly they were trapped in an ambush in the claustrophobic confines of a wet-goods market, running a gauntlet of makeshift obstacles, small-arms fire, pipe bombs, and RPGs.

It was pitch black, except for a glimmer of moon and the torrent of tracer fire from enemy gunmen on the roofs, on upper-floor balconies and on the street. The red tracer trajectories lit up "a big red V, and we were right in it," says driver Spc. Dee Foster, "It was just like that movie 'Blackhawk Down'." Adds one of his comrades, "More like Blackhawk Down times five." gunner Spc. Nick Gonzales poured lead into the muzzle flashes around him. An enemy round came through the Humvees right rear door--through retrofitted panels that they'd been told (obviously, falsely) would repel AK-47 rounds. Miraculously none of the three people inside were hit.

Around that time, the Humvee died. "it just wouldn't start, we coasted the last 50 yards out of the kill zone," says Foster. He didn't know it then, but debris had pierced the fuel tank, which now had a 10-inch hole. "Get out! Get out of the goddamn vehicle!" yelled Embree. Foster recalls "lying on the street, literally in s--t, trying to get the Humvee working." Embree ordered the radioman to alert the rest of the convoy that their Humvee was disabled. Soldiers were yelling at the other vehicles, whose red taillights receded into the distance. "That was the worst thing," agrees Foster, "seeing the Bradleys disappear."

Sporadic small arms fire rang out in the night, though not the fusillade they'd experienced in the market. "I saw some bullets tearing up the street in front of my feet," recalls Foster, "Then I saw something move in the street. I knew my guys were on the other side, so I shot at the movement with the pistol in my left hand. Turns out it the area was a stable. The thing I shot was probably a donkey--my first confirmed kill."

Within a few minutes, some of the Bradleys returned. The soldiers scrambled about trying to attach a tow strap to the disabled Humvee. The first tow strap broke. Small arms fire lit up the sky. The Bradley teams wanted to abandon the Humvee, disabling its sensitive equipment. But Embree refused. Finally someone broke out tools, unscrewed the shackle and "we Mickey-Moused a different towing arrangement," he recalls, "I wasn't going to torch my Humvee".

By this time Gonzalez had flung himself into the back of an already-crowded Bradley, pulling Foster by the hooks on his flak vest into the bowels of the armored vehicle. When the Bradley's gunner started firing at their attackers, "it sounded real nice," Gonzalez says. But they weren't out of the woods. Nearly 200 meters up the road, a huge explosion rang out as an RPG hit the Bradley. No one was hurt. But Embree remembers "not being able to feel my lips" because of the force of the blast. "I thought of Mogadishu, with people on the rooftops, tons of people just shooting at you," Staff Sgt. Chad Sandoe clarifies one point: "The difference is that in Mogadishu they didn't have Bradleys."

Back at the original ambush site, Shiite militants had attempted two separate assaults to dislodge Aguero and his men. In one, dozens of combatants tried to converge from opposite ends of the alley. "We opened up with our crew-served weapons towards both ends of the alley. They didn't come back," he says. "Twenty minutes later they tried coming in over the rooftops. We stopped that too." Meanwhile an OH58 Kiowa observation helicopter was in the air, trying to locate the lost patrol. But the soldiers were nestled too deeply in the labyrinthine alleys, indistinguishable from the militants swarming over the rooftops. The U.S. soldiers detonated smoke grenades. They set up BS17 emergency panels, designed to be visible at night, on the roof. They set the disabled Humvees on fire, sending up plumes of smoke.

At one point Swope saw vehicles of his company's second platoon roll past the mouth of the alley. They had no more smoke grenades, so Aguero instructed his mates, "Make a fire." The soldiers on the roof couldn't find any flammable material so they ripped the sleeves off their uniforms and ignited them. The chopper could see them now--but not the quick reaction force on the street. Smoke from the burning Humvees was obscuring everything. Swope radioed the battalion that "we're running low on ammo, we're black on ammo." Ammunition supplies for their M-16's and crew-served weapons was below 25 percent.

Finally Aguero and his men heard tanks from Crusader company of the 1AD's first battalion, 237th armored regiment rolling past the Sadr Bureau. By this time the guys on the roof were flashing the lights attached to their M-16's. "It took forever for them to get through all the debris," says Aguero. Finally the armor arrived. Two wounded soldiers were loaded into one tank. The gunner Chen was declared dead; his body was strapped to the top of one of the vehicles. After being shot at for three hours, Aguero and Swope felt comparatively safe in the embrace of several tanks. "We paused to account for all our people," says Aguero, "and we started smoking cigarettes. The tank commander said he couldn't believe his eyes. 'you're taking fire and you're sitting here having a smoke break!'"

In all, eight U.S. soldiers died that night and 50 were wounded, making the battle of Sadr City one of the deadliest single engagements since the fall of Baghdad. At least 1,500 Iraqi militants had attacked various American forces; an estimated 500 pro-Sadr fighters were killed.

Lt. Col. Volesky--who, during the battle, had to interrupt a radio transmission to his brigade commander in order to fire his weapon at an attacker--points out that the Mogadishu metaphor falls short. "It wasn't like Somalia, because we recovered all our people and we went right back in to the battle area." After U.S. forces were ambushed in various parts of the city, armed militiamen simultaneously overran at least five police stations in Sadr City. But not for long. U.S. forces pushed them back, then parked tanks and Bradleys in front of the police facilities for four days. "We stayed right in the middle of town," says Volesky, "the people of Sadr City have never seen that before."

Col. Abrams said the heavy armor was ordered out of Sadr City on Friday morning, to allow residents to attend Friday prayers at their mosques without U.S. gun turrets pointing in all directions nearby. "But they were back inside Friday night." He vehemently disputes any comparison with Mogadishu. "not even close. Was there a big fight in Mogadishu? You betcha. Was there a big firefight in Sadr City? You betcha. End of comparison."

Ten days after the big battle, Embree and his men finally brought back to Camp Eagle the original vehicle--or what was left of it--that had been caught up in the first ambush. The charred and gutted carcass was barely recognizable. The only familiar appendage was a disembodied slant-back roof--a distinctive Humvee shape--that hadn't been looted by scrap-metal scavengers only because it was too thick to cut up. Around the same time, Volesky and some of his men raided the notorious Meridi market, which specializes in illicit weapons, ammunition and military supplies. They recovered contraband U.S. military items, including notebooks, parts for crew-served weapons, and night-vision optical devices. "This stuff was probably looted from the disabled Humvees on April 4," he says, "we intend to get everything back."

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