Patrol Base Apache, Baghdad, March 20, 2007--This is the Baghdad Security Plan at its grass roots level, one of some 77 Combat Outposts (COPs) and Joint Security Stations (JSSs) that the U.S. military has set up in Baghdad's neighborhoods, with American and Iraqi army troops working side by side. This particular one is in Adhamiya, which is, as an Iraqi interpreter nicknamed Steve-O puts it, "the worst place in Baghdad." There are several contenders for that dubious honor, but Adhamiya certainly is one of the most resolutely anti-government neighborhoods, a hardline Sunni area, which is home to the Sunni community's most treasured mosque, Abu Hanifa, and peopled with former Baath Party officials. It was also the last place in Baghdad where Saddam hid out before fleeing the American advance.
Apache is technically a COP, but a big one, with a battalion of Iraqi troops in the palace next door, and a large number of American troops in a separately guarded, hardened compound of their own along the Tigris River. There's no accident about the patrol base's name, says American military adviser Major Peter Zike, head of Apache's Military Transition Team (MiTT), as the advisers are called. "On any given day you'll get five attacks from three directions here," he says. They're patrolling so frequently that Zike himself went through two IED near misses just last week, not uncommon for any of the soldiers at Apache, part of the 82nd Airborne's surge into Baghdad--although most of these troops are 1st Infantry Division, attached to the 82nd. In Adhamiya district as a whole, just in the first month of the Baghdad Security Plan, five American soldiers have been killed and seven Iraqi Army troops as well; two of those American casualties and two of the Iraqis were out of Apache.
Today many of the troops went off in convoy up to battalion headquarters in Taji, for a memorial service for the latest soldier who died, Pfc. Alberto Garcia Jr., 23, from Bakersfield, Calif., of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion of the 26th Infantry. See-ya, as his friends called him, was in a Humvee on a patrol on March 13 through a residential quarter of Adhamiya, four Humvees and two Bradley fighting vehicles full of American troops, when an IED was exploded right under his vehicle. Garcia was killed and one other soldier wounded. "You know what they say, you shouldn't crap where you sleep, but this person that put the IED did just that," said Pfc. Daniel Agami, 25, from Miami, who had been there. The next day the Americans and Iraqi army soldiers came back and searched every building on that street, and found a huge IED and car-bomb manufacturing plant in a house only 500 feet from the IED site. After clearing the street of residents, "We blew up the f--g house off the face of the earth," Agami said.
The detonation actually was a controlled one by an Army demolitions team, because among the arsenal in the house were booby-trapped landmines -- much safer to blow than to disarm, officers said. The blast damaged a house across the street, and soldiers issued the owners a claim check, so they could file for compensation at the Adhamiya District Advisory Council.
It may take a while to process that claim. The Adhamiya District Advisory Council's previous chairman, Sheikh Hassan Sabri, is in jail, suspected of working with insurgents; his replacement, Mudhafer al-Ubardi, was assassinated last Thursday on his way to work. So far there's no official replacement. Citizens needing assistance can also go to the new Joint Security Station, a facility where coalition and Iraqi military, as well as Iraqi police, are on hand to coordinate neighborhood security and to interact with the public; new JSSs are being set up at a rapid pace throughout Baghdad. But if there's one place in Adhamiya tougher than Apache, it's the Joint Security Station, located at the Adhamiya police station. Only 500 meters from Apache, the only way from one to the other is by armored convoy. That JSS has been attacked nearly every day since it opened a week ago; yesterday, in one attack, insurgents used rocket-propelled grenades, small arms and a grenade against various walls of the compound, and implanted an IED on another wall.
As far as Zike is concerned, for all the problems in Adhamiya, the security plan is going well. Sectarian killings are way down, militia and other armed irregulars are off the streets. "I do not have as many armed people running around the streets, and that's good. Before, we'd find eight bodies a day, murder victims, now we find one a week." But that hasn't stopped the Sunni insurgents and their Al Qaeda allies in Adhamiya, who have redoubled their efforts. "They want a voice in what's happening and are trying to make up the difference by doing the insurgent thing."
Now, however, there are more U.S. troops as well as more Iraqi troops on the scene--Adhamiya has probably four or five times the number of total troops that were present previously. In addition to being in half a dozen COPs and JSSs throughout the area, both Americans and Iraqis are running operations much more frequently, mostly at night--tonight they plan to hit a dozen targets before dawn, some of them joint attacks and some even run independently by the Iraqi Army. Early this morning, teams from Apache went out with Explosive Ordinance Disposal teams at 5 a.m. to blow up five IEDs that they had found along a main road. "The local populace came and told us they were there, go figure," Zike said. "The population's getting tired of having their stuff blown up."
All of this means a lot more work for troops, many of whom previously spent large chunks of their war holed up in Forward Operating Bases, running long distances through Baghdad to whatever mission they were assigned. So far, at least, most of the soldiers at Apache seem to prefer getting out frequently, and many of them say they feel it makes them safer in the long run. "We go out more and we do more," said Spec. Joshua Reyes of El Paso, Texas. "I'd rather be doing ops than driving up and down the roads waiting for something to happen." So far, a lot of those things that have happened have been bad. His own Charlie Company, here since last August, has had seven soldiers killed so far. Their names are scratched in the cement wall of Reyes's guard tower at Apache, next to the machine gun poking through a narrow window in the wall; the armored window of a Humvee has been wedged into a hole in the wall to protect spotters from insurgent snipers. A sign reminds the lookouts that if they get incoming, they should radio to the JSS to duck, before they return fire. In Adhamiya, at least, the Baghdad Security Plan still has a long way to go.