June 6, 2004

On a Mission in Sadr City, Waiting Silently for the Expected


New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq, June 5 — Members of Company A of the Second Battalion, Fifth Cavalry Regiment of the First Cavalry Division, thought they had a respite this week, a chance to inventory equipment and take a break from the daily combat they have endured during the past two months in the Sadr City district of Baghdad. But around 2 p.m. on Tuesday, they got the call that Company C was taking fire from a mosque and school and needed backup.

Within minutes, Lt. Chris Cannon and the other 28 men of Company A's Third Platoon climbed into four Bradley Fighting Vehicles. They rumbled out of the base and onto the trash-choked streets of Sadr City to face ambush repeatedly.

Sadr City, a poor and predominantly Shiite neighborhood, has become one of the deadliest battlegrounds in Iraq. Since the militia of Moktada al-Sadr militia started fighting in May, the First Cavalry Division has killed 912 Iraqis here, according to official reports.

The toll is easy to see in Lieutenant Cannon's platoon. Since it arrived here at full strength in early March, nearly half the platoon has received Purple Hearts for combat wounds, and the unit has lost 10 of its original 39 members, with 2 killed and 8 seriously wounded.

The noise inside a Bradley is like an amplified meat grinder, and the smell is of choking dust and diesel, gunpowder and sweat. On a recent morning, four infantrymen and a reporter in the back of the Bradley sat silently in the darkness. Lieutenant Cannon and the gunner, Sgt. Bryan Shockey, sat up in the turret. Specialist Scott Williams, the driver, sat alone up front.

For an hour, the four vehicles maneuvered through the crowded streets until they approached the mosque where Company C had been attacked. They took up a box formation, about 50 yards apart from one another, keeping watch and waiting for an Iraqi police unit to come search the mosque.

In the turret, Sergeant Shockey kept the machine gun and 25-millimeter cannon moving, his thermal-imaging scope revealing piles of garbage, broken-down cars, a poster of Moktada al-Sadr, a funeral tent.

In the back, the soldiers watched a screen that showed what the gunner saw. Their faces were lighted with a green glow, and as the air in the vehicle grew hot and close, sweat soaked their uniforms.

Suddenly, the stillness was broken by a sharp explosion, and a wall nearby erupted in a shower of concrete. Staff Sgt. Matthew Mercado grabbed the radio, shouting: "On the right, an R.P.G. hit! It went over us!" A moment later, another explosion, this one closer. The 65-ton vehicle rocked violently, and a chorus of expletives erupted from the men in the back.

Voices shouted from the radio as the gunner looked for a target. "Eleven o'clock! Look 11 o'clock!" said one. The gunner swiveled the turret. "No, that's not it, try 9 o'clock," Specialist Todd Singleton yelled from the back.

The gunner scanned again and again, but the street was deserted. There was no movement, just low buildings as far as the eye could see, balconies and rooftops by the hundred, alleyways by the dozen, all perfect hiding places. A few faces peaked out from an doorway in the distance, but no weapon was discernible. The Bradleys held their fire.

The insurgents here play cat and mouse with the soldiers, popping out for seconds, just long enough to fire a rocket-propelled grenade or an assault rifle, then melting back into the shadows. They have picked up on the inherent shortcomings of armored vehicles: the gunners have a narrow field of view. If they are pointing even a few degrees away from the shooter, they will not see the weapon's muzzle flash.

Sergeant Mercado sat smoldering like a pit bull on a leash. "If they let us dismount, we could kill those guys in five minutes," he said. He grabbed the radio and requested permission from Lieutenant Cannon to open the three-inch-thick rear hatch.

The lieutenant scanned a landscape. "Permission denied," he answered. As if seconding his judgment, another rocket exploded, this one just yards from the Bradley. Shrapnel clanged off the rear door. Up front, Specialist Williams threw the Bradley into gear and moved 50 feet back, trying to deprive the insurgents of a stationary target.

A half-dozen more explosions rocked the vehicles over the next half hour, many coming within yards. But then the commander of another Bradley, Sgt. George Scheufele, spotted insurgents with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher hiding behind a truck about 400 yards away.

Lieutenant Cannon radioed headquarters for permission to use the vehicle's cannon and high-explosive rounds. The streets were empty, and injury to civilians was judged unlikely, so permission was granted.

Sergeant Shockey waited patiently. The men came crouching around the corner again, the R.P.G. visible. He squeezed the trigger, and the Bradley echoed as the gun fired. At 400 yards, the first shot was dead on. He squeezed again, a three-round burst, and the men and the truck disappeared in a ball of flames.

Within minutes, two dozen Iraqis emerged from buildings to push cars away from the flames and pull down a tent where gunmen had been seen taking cover. But Company A was moving out. Over the radio, the soldiers heard that the Iraqi police had refused to check out the mosque.

Three of the Bradleys reversed direction up the street. The fourth waited for several long seconds, until a man reappeared from the alleyway, this time with an AK-47 rifle. The Bradley's machine gun barked, and the man tumbled backward. Then the vehicle fell into formation behind the others, and they went clanking back through the streets of Sadr City.

They wasted no time getting back to the base, partly because they would likely have to go back out again before the night was over. The night missions are the violent ones, with ambushes nearly certain. Gunfire and explosions echoed through Sadr City after dark.