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The most dangerous squad in Baghdad

By P. MITCHELL PROTHERO, United Press International   |   July 7, 2004 at 4:11 PM
BAGHDAD, July 7 (UPI) -- "How'd you end up with us, is this an embed?" the ridiculously young looking soldier asked me as we crouched on the roof of a power transformer station, surveying downtown Baghdad. He's peering down the sight of his belt-fed machine gun at a group of Iraqis located about 500 meters (yards) away towards the Tigris River when he realizes that they're armed.

"Shit, shit, they have weapons," he yells across the roof at his corporal.

"So fucking kill them," comes the pithy reply from the other ridiculously young solider.

"Wait, wait. They're ICDC or ING or whatever the fuck they're called now," yells another. "They're with us."

In the last week the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps has been renamed the Iraqi National Guard, a distinction that only means that the Iraqis will not be killed by the four man team that's protecting this impromptu command post.

The roof is hot. Baghdad's high temperature on Wednesday is 118 degrees and the men of squad two, second platoon of the 1st Cavalry Division's 1-9 Regiment have already lost three men to the heat and it's only about half past noon.

When told that I had just happened to hook up with their unit after being caught in the middle of a running gun battle in central Baghdad, one of the men laughs.

"Well asshole, you just hooked up with the most dangerous squad in Baghdad," he says without looking up from his weapon, which is now trained on a small group of men several blocks away who are certainly not ING. Just what might be ordinary bravado from a young soldier echoes across the cement rooftop, his squad-mate clarifies.

"No really we are," he says. "Out of the 11 of us, only two haven't won the Purple Heart in the last four months. It sucks to be us."

He means that to be in his unit offers a nine out of 11 chance to be wounded in action.

Having been quiet for the past 10 days as Iraq saw its sovereignty returned, insurgents picked the morning that the interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced sweeping security measures that effectively allow him to declare martial law to stamp out Iraq's bloody insurgency to attack U.S. and ING forces in central Baghdad.

Terror attacks are common in Baghdad. Insurgents attacking convoys and U.S. bases outside Baghdad are frequent. But masked gunmen running through central Baghdad in fire fights with police, ING and U.S. military is unheard of. It barely happened during the invasion of Iraq.

The morning began with a mortar attack on Allawi's residence, which we couldn't get close enough to investigate. Then suddenly traffic became even worse than its typically insufferable level. And the sight of U.S. Apache attack helicopters sweeping on firing runs in downtown Baghdad indicated something major was happening. Having deftly avoided much of the traffic, my driver and I were looking for what was happening, expecting a cordon of military vehicles keeping us away from the action.

What we didn't expect was that our deftness -- a result of my driver's surreal ability to avoid traffic jams -- would drive ourselves into the middle of a firefight. As bullets flew around our car, which was hastily abandoned, we ran for the shelter of a nearby hospital. We could see U.S. troops far down the broad boulevard. And there was a lot of firing, but we couldn't see who was shooting or at what. But we could hear the bullets smacking trees nearby the now abandoned car and U.S. troops at the end of the road weren't shooting or getting shot at, making the usual calculations of how to safely cover a firefight -- avoid the people getting shot at -- useless.

Having decided that the car was a safer option than huddling and waiting to figure out who was doing the shooting, we broke for the car and headed for the nearest Iraqi Police station to find out what was going on.

The police station was milling with police carrying assault rifles and some casually mentioned that they were currently under attack from unknown forces. But the shooting had just stopped, likely connected to the missiles fired from an Apache overhead and the black smoke pluming into the sky a few blocks away.

Just as the Iraqis were trying to decide whether they were still under attack, three Bradley Fighting Vehicles of the 1st Cav. arrived and dumped three squads of infantry into the area. As they took up defensive positions, they uncharacteristically ignored me, probably due to gunfire directed on their positions. It wasn't well aimed and hit no one in the vicinity, but it caused the platoon leader to send out a squad to stop it.

Walking the streets of Haifa -- the neighborhood -- was tense and full of intermittent gunfire, causing the squad to take a solid 30 minutes to travel just a handful of blocks. Having picked the power station as a base, it was checked and gunners assigned to the roof to protect both the station itself and provide supporting fire to a group of ING reportedly a few blocks away.

They were pinned down by insurgents and had three wounded men. So several armored vehicles arrived with the rest of the platoon and a rescue mission planned in the small courtyard of the building.

It was decided that the rescue operation -- headed to the building four blocks away -- would be done on foot.

As the 1st Lieutenant commanding the platoon conferred over maps and with his company commander by radio, a hulking sergeant major addressed the men.

"We are expecting resistance, this is full weapons on, men," he bellowed. "If you don't like it, soldier, then shoot it. Shoot boxes or anything you think might be an (improvised explosive device). They are expecting us."

Setting out in long lines of men covering each side of the street, the soldiers faced not only the odd gunshot, threat of ambush, or, worse, a roadside bomb, but also the stares of Iraqis who were gathering outside their homes and shops to watch the deadly show. Some scowled, others waved, and the men of second platoon were not happy walking through a rough neighborhood of Baghdad in daylight with little armored vehicle support. And the Apaches had run out of fuel and retuned home so there was no air cover. But as they moved down a side alley along, little happened. Leaving the alley, they broke into the open and quickly established a defensive perimeter around the ING building. One squad ran for the entrance, as the others provided cover, only to find the building locked.

"Open this door or I'll open it myself," one soldier yelled at a confused Iraqi man outside the building who clearly had no idea what he was talking about. The ING, it turns out, had already left, even remembering to lock up the facility.

"I hate this shit," said the lieutenant. "We have terrible (communications) with the ICDC or ING, or whatever they are. I can't believe this."

But even as the group withdraws, one soldier sees something a block away. And a report of men using a nearby house to stage attacks has just come through.

Three doors are hit. The first two have only women and children. The third small building has 12 fighting age men in it. And all of their identification is suspicious enough that -- despite the absence of weapons -- it's decided to arrest them for questioning.

So second platoon marches their 12 prisoners -- and a growing band of curious reporters -- back the vehicles.

As they are loaded into armored vehicles for the ride back to the unit's forward operating base, one of the men manages to slip away and actually sits down at a café down the block pretending like he wasn't involved. A translator for one news organization notices and the reporter innocently asks one soldier why the man was let go.

"Get that guy," cries the lieutenant, who then walks over to the café himself and grabs the man, who doesn't even try and deny anything. He just shrugs and follows his friends into the back of the vehicle.

Moments later, rifle shots ring out as one soldier notices that the street down the block is now littered with cardboard boxes. He carefully puts a round through each one to make sure none holds a roadside bomb.

"You can't be too careful in Baghdad," he shrugs.

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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