The New Way Forward

Also known as increasing both the casualty rate and the collateral damage.

In the Vortex of Baghdad, Staying Put This Time
By MARC SANTORA
Published: January 23, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jan. 22 — Two blocks from the new American outpost in Ghazaliya, one of Baghdad’s most dangerous neighborhoods, a fight was raging. Shiites were battling Sunnis, the latest skirmish in a sectarian war that has left this area a wasteland.

On Friday morning, it became an American fight, too, after a few rounds whizzed by Sgt. Sergej Michaud’s head, and he and three other soldiers returned fire.

The battle would rage for nearly an hour, with mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades exploding near the soldiers, who in turn laid down heavy fire, eventually driving the attackers away.

Previously, that would have been the end of it, with the soldiers moving on to their next patrol area and eventually returning to their base. But this time, the Americans were staying, defending their new home in a neighborhood where the rule of law had been driven out by the reign of the gun.

Their outpost here, a cluster of fortified houses officially designated a joint security station and unofficially called the Alamo by some of the soldiers, is a test case for President Bush’s new Baghdad security plan. The strategy envisions at least 20 more facilities like it in other troubled neighborhoods, all jointly staffed by Iraqi and American forces.

Even after the stations are set up, American commanders say, it will be many months, at best, before they can even hope to prevent bombings like the one that killed at least 88 people in a central Baghdad market area on Monday.

In the week since the Americans arrived, however, the troops have seen the truth of what their commanders warned in announcing the plan: it leaves Americans more exposed than ever, stationary targets for warring militias.

The outpost sits on the fault line between Sunni and Shiite enclaves: Ghazaliya to the south, where fighters with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia have moved in among the Sunni population, and Shula to the north, a base for Shiite militias that have been raiding this neighborhood for months.

Over the course of three days spent with the 105 soldiers here — Company C of the Second Battalion, 12th Cavalry — four American vehicles were hit by roadside bombs near the outpost. No soldiers from Company C were wounded, but they know the fighting will intensify.

“I’m a juicy target they are just trying to figure out,” said Capt. Erik Peterson, 29, the commander at the outpost.

During the week, the soldiers also received their first glimpse of the green Iraqi forces who will share the mission and eventually, they hoped, take it over. The soldiers talked about them with a mixture of bemusement, disdain and mistrust.

“You could talk about partnership, but you would be lying,” said one soldier who asked that his name not be used, for fear of punishment by his superiors.

It was also a week to start getting to know the desperate residents of Ghazaliya, where almost every remaining family has lost someone to kidnappings and executions, and where government services have long been cut off.

In their new role, the Americans find themselves acting as jailers and doctors, construction workers and garbage men, guardians and detectives — all in an effort to restore lasting order despite the threats on every side.

Read all of it here.

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