Urban Combat Frustrates Army
Attackers in Baghdad Using Cover of Crowds, Buildings
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Molly Moore
The Washington Post
Tuesday 08 July 2003
BAGHDAD, July 7 -- As attacks on occupation forces in Iraq escalate, assailants in Baghdad have used the capital's bustling crowds, tall buildings and busy streets as avenues for surprise strikes and easy escapes -- elements of urban warfare that U.S. troops managed to avoid during the military campaign to topple the government of Saddam Hussein.
On Sunday, a U.S. soldier was fatally shot in the neck outside a packed cafeteria at Baghdad University by a man who disappeared into a throng of students. On Thursday night, a soldier poking out of the hatch of an armored vehicle was killed by a sniper perched in an eight-story building across the street. And 10 days ago, a civil affairs soldier walking along a sidewalk was gunned down by an assailant who had appeared from -- and then disappeared back into -- a swarm of shoppers.
"When you're in the middle of a city, it's impossible to tell friend from foe," said Sgt. Lawrence Adams of the 1st Armored Division, whose field artillery unit has been attacked seven times since it arrived in Baghdad in early May to patrol a two-square-mile sector along the Tigris River. The incidents included mortar fire from a nearby neighborhood, a drive-by shooting, a rocket-propelled grenade launched from a bus stop and hand grenades tossed at soldiers' Humvees as they drove through a congested market.
The daily attacks that use the urban landscape for concealment and flight have frustrated and frightened U.S. forces in Baghdad, many of whom have to drive through the city in open-sided Humvees, stand in front of government buildings and walk through public places every day. On a mission to restore public order and rebuild a war-scarred nation, soldiers regard themselves as particularly vulnerable to resistance fighters who take advantage of the fact that not all U.S. troops are hunkered down in sandbagged bases or driven around in armored vehicles.
"If we have to be peacekeepers here, we're going to be exposed to all kinds of attacks," said a military police officer. "Sure, we have our flak jackets and our helmets -- and we're always on the lookout for suspicious activity. But the depressing thing is that there's not a whole lot we really can do about those guys who are determined to try to kill us."
U.S. military commanders had hoped to avoid urban combat in the earliest days of the war and relied on airstrikes and a strategy of drawing the Iraqi army outside this sprawling city of 5 million people. But since Hussein's government collapsed and the war was declared over, unpredictable guerrilla-style attacks against U.S. troops have escalated.
The death of Pfc. Edward J. Herrgott of Shakopee, Minn., illustrates the everyday dangers confronting U.S. troops. On Thursday evening, Herrgott was manning the gunner's hatch of an M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle parked in front of the entrance to the Baghdad Museum, facing an eight-story building that has stores on the first two floors and an abandoned parking lot on the upper floors. Around 8:30 p.m., as the sun was setting but there was still enough light to spot a target, a sniper fired three rounds at the Bradley, killing Herrgott, said Habib Saleh, a guard at the shopping center who witnessed the shooting.
"They should be somewhere else," Saleh said of the soldiers at the museum, which houses unremarkable wax figures in displays that depict life in Baghdad a century ago. "It's not safe where they are."
The day after the shooting, members of Herrgott's unit stood behind the Bradley, nervously scanning the parking lot every few minutes. When a visitor approached on the sidewalk, they refused to talk, saying that walking toward a nearby razor-wire barricade would put them at risk.
But one of the soldiers, who would not provide his name, shouted that the troops in front of the museum had been shot at before. "This happens all the time," he growled.
Although no soldiers from Adams's unit -- Alpha Battery of the 4-27th Field Artillery -- have been killed, none of the unit's attackers has been apprehended either. "If we've got somebody firing at us from a bus stop across the street, you can't automatically open fire on them," said Adams, 46, of Kansas City, Mo. "And you don't always want to chase them in a Humvee."
On Sunday night, a U.S. soldier was killed in Baghdad's Adhamiyah neighborhood after he and other soldiers pursued two gunmen who had ambushed a patrol, military officials here said. A few hours later, insurgents threw a homemade bomb at a U.S. convoy in northern Baghdad, killing another soldier, the officials said.
Those two fatalities brought to 30 the number of U.S. military personnel killed by hostile action since President Bush declared major combat over on May 1. U.S. officials blame the attacks on fighters still loyal to Hussein, Islamic extremists and others disgruntled with the occupation of their country.
The attackers have become bolder, often striking in broad daylight. At the same time, they have become more selective in their targeting. Instead of attacking large, armed convoys, they now plant homemade bombs along streets where foot soldiers frequently patrol, attack convoys of light vehicles and catch victims off-guard with random, point-blank shootings in public places.
"We're hit more now that the war is pretty much over," said Spec. Justin Keeney, 22, of Oregon City, Ore., who drives a heavy equipment truck between Baghdad and military encampments northwest of the city. "When we haul tanks or artillery, they don't mess with us. If we have engineering equipment, we get lit up. It's almost guaranteed."
Pfc. Kyle Clark, 20, of Kent, Wash., a gunner on a military police Humvee who patrols Baghdad, said his unit was "shot at two times in the last two days." In one instance, a sniper fired from a school. Soldiers returned fire, then cordoned off the area around the school, but the assailant leaped over a wall and escaped, Clark said.
"Two or three weeks ago, we used to be hit only at night," said Spec. Heath Montensen, 28, a driver with the 11th Transportation Company who travels throughout the area northwest of Baghdad. "Now we get hit during the day."
Such urban combat not only poses an immediate threat to soldiers' lives, it has the potential to stir resentment toward occupation forces at a time when the U.S. government is attempting to focus attention on its efforts to rebuild Iraq. The deaths of innocent civilians trapped in crossfire or explosions have inflamed emotions among Iraqis who question the ability of the troops to bring stability to the country and have undermined support among those who have chosen to work with the occupiers.
When a bomb exploded in the median strip of busy Haifa Street on Thursday, killing two Iraqis and injuring 12, angry residents held U.S. troops responsible for all the deaths and injuries, even those caused by the Iraqi-laid bomb rather than the spray of bullets that American troops fired in response.
"I blame the Americans," said Ahmed Midhat, 12, whose legs were shredded by flying shards of metal from the explosive device. "You know why? The Americans started to shoot randomly."
Many soldiers say they are not surprised by the increasing attacks or the displays of anger among Iraqis.
"They're getting tired of us," said Spec. James McNeely, 48, a member of the D.C. National Guard's 547th Transportation Company. "Wouldn't you be mad if they invaded your country?"
McNeely said his unit has had little chance to interact with Iraqis or play a part in the nation-building operations that Washington hopes will win the support of Iraqis.
"We're just trying to survive, trying to make our lives a little more pleasant," he said during a stop at a roadside vendor to buy soft drinks for the men on his truck before heading into the military compound at Baghdad's international airport.
For others, the attacks have become not only frightening, but disheartening.
"We get so much resistance, we hear so much about different military people getting killed, it seems like people don't want to be helped," said Spec. Julian Snelling, 21, of Fredericksburg, Va., a member of the 307th Military Police Company. "Many Iraqis love us, but the bad apples alter your thinking."