A Handful Of Soldiers, On Patrol

A Handful Of Soldiers, On Patrol
May 27th, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: A Handful Of Soldiers, On Patrol

A Handful Of Soldiers, On Patrol
New York Times
May 27, 2007
Pg. WK3
By Damien Cave
MAHMUDIYA, Iraq--Standing watch in a concrete guard tower at a small base east of Mahmudiya, Pfc. Freddy Pineda pointed to a tower in the distance.
“That one is pretty scary,” he said of the outpost. “It’s pretty open to the town.”
Seconds later, a rocket whistled through the sky and exploded over the distant tower.
Military battle positions have sprung up here in the farmland of the Sunni Triangle of Death, south of Baghdad. Manned in many cases by only a handful of soldiers, the battle positions play a dual role: they are a base for efforts to stop insurgents from placing roadside bombs, and they represent a more dangerous new tactic in Gen. David H. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency plan, which emphasizes pushing soldiers out of safer large bases and into communities.
Whether this new plan will work remains an open question. The number of bombs found or detonated here has declined since last fall, and soldiers are finding nearly 6 in 10 before they go off, according to figures from the brigade in charge of the area. Some troops, placed in villages where strict Islamic law was enforced, also say they have brought stability and more freedom to local residents.
But military officials acknowledge that this new dispersal strategy is risky. Their forces, they say, are not numerous enough to control the entire area. And insurgents have begun adjusting to the new American strategy with deadly sophistication, coordinating complex assaults on isolated troops and placing explosives where foot patrols will likely cross. In many ways, the soldiers’ experiences at these outposts demonstrate how every new American tactic provokes an equally new and deadly response.
The struggle comes down in part to resources and terrain. The Second Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division, with about 3,200 soldiers, covers the Triangle of Death around Mahmudiya, Latafiya and Yusifiya. The area is roughly the size of Cape Cod with 400,000 people, and is difficult to manage, commanders said, because residents are spread across hundreds of farms — a sharp contrast to Anbar Province, which is mostly desert with towns clustered along major rivers.
The Iraqi Army plays an increasingly prominent role here but some military analysts question whether there are enough American troops to keep any kind of peace or to keep insurgents from feeding bombs and weapons into Baghdad.
“The practice of spreading U.S. forces thinly across large areas and locating them in isolated outposts is a recipe for disaster,” said Loren B. Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute. “It will increase the number of American casualties by depriving U.S. forces of the advantages associated with mass and firepower.”
Over all, the Second Brigade has lost 42 soldiers to combat since September, putting it on pace to surpass the number of soldiers killed in attacks, 48, during the year before the unit took over. Commanders acknowledge that the move to smaller bases will continue to exact a precious human toll.
Earlier this month, Maj. Gen. Richard Lynch, commander of multinational division center, which includes the second brigade, said, “As we have surged, we find the enemy surging as well.”
And, he added, “as we continue to put our forces in areas in which they have never operated, we can expect continued casualties.”
Despite the risks, most troops seem to support working in outposts. Many soldiers said that the close contact with Iraqis and the chance to work in small groups rather than on massive forward operating bases, or F.O.B.’s, has brought units closer together and made them feel more productive.
“You got to live with the people,” said Sgt. First Class Steven Johnson, 33, a platoon leader in B Company, Fourth Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment of the Second Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division. “You can’t do this like a 9-to-5 job. You can’t leave some super F.O.B., drive out into an area, sit in your trucks maybe get out once or twice and talk to people, get back in your trucks and get back to your super F.O.B. You can’t do that.”
Last fall, Sergeant Johnson and a few dozen soldiers took over a building that had belonged to a known Qaeda figure in Rushdimullah, a small farming hamlet west of Yusifiya and Mahmudiya. Insurgents controlled the town, enforcing strict Islamic codes.
After moving to what they call Patrol Base Shanghai, they were attacked several times with roadside bombs and by snipers. Once, as many as 20 gunmen fired at them from different directions. Since then, the soldiers said, the number of attacks have gone from several a week to a few a month.
They attribute the decline to their relentless presence. After two large roadside bombs exploded several months ago on the hamlet’s main road, for example, the unit set up three small towers that allowed them to look for people planting roadside bombs. One or two Humvees are sometimes placed at curves in the road so soldiers can look around corners.
But this kind of Humvee patrol led to an ambush on May 12. Just before dawn, a large group of gunmen overwhelmed two Humvees on lookout, abducting three American troops and killing five other soldiers, including an Iraqi. The coordinated attack included grenades, small arms and several roadside bombs placed to the north and south, which prevented reinforcements from arriving until after the gunmen fled.
Some units have tried to adjust. The company commander at Shanghai, Capt. Christopher Vitale, 29, said that he planned to cut down reeds to eliminate cover for insurgents. Humvees, he said, are used sparingly and when in use, other soldiers are only a few hundred yards away.
Insurgents, stymied by efforts to prevent roadside bombs, now plant explosives on grassy paths where soldiers patrol on foot. Last week, Sgt. Justin D. Wisniewski, 22, died 20 yards from this reporter when he stepped on a bomb placed in a grassy field.
The insurgents’ new tactics have brought new fears to these soldiers. The enemy, they know, will continue to evolve. Pfc. Michael Crawford, 24, of Duboise, Penn., was in the tower with Private Pineda when the rocket propelled grenade, or R.P.G., crossed the sky near one of the base’s battle positions.
“These towers are supposed to be able to take 2 R.P.G.’s,” he said. “But I don’t want to find out.”

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