(KNIGHT-RIDDER) BAGHDAD, Iraq – It’s going to be a good day, the American soldiers thought, as they left the base and started their patrol in the most dangerous part of Baghdad.
On the decrepit streets lined with raw sewage and garbage, Iraqi men silently stared down the passing Humvees, sometimes with arms crossed. One man stepped out of his shop and spit toward the convoy. Children ran along the patrol route, waving, cheering and begging for candy.
A dirty look is better than no one out at all, the soldiers said. When parents are willing to venture out and let their children play, it means the insurgents aren’t planning an attack, at least for the moment.
These are more than casual observations by the soldiers. The military calls it atmospherics, and it passes for military intelligence at a time when U.S. troops near Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood no longer can interact openly with Iraqis. It comes mostly from the limited view through the windows that line their Humvees. The soldiers said such looks helped them determine how dangerous their patrol route could be that day.
The atmospherics “are almost like the old Indian smoke signals,” said Capt. Clint Tracy, 30, of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, A Company 1-12 Cavalry, from Fort Hood, Texas, which has a base at the edge of Sadr City. “A lot of people have lived in the same place for quite a while. They know everything before we do.”
Although not foolproof, atmospherics are generally reliable because the Iraqis are gathering their own intelligence about how safe the streets are that day. They know from their neighbors if insurgents have taken over a home to attack the Americans. They see if someone is launching mortars onto a military base from outside his home.
There was a time when U.S. soldiers could leave their bases freely in non-armored Humvees and interact with the people they’d traveled thousands of miles to protect. The Iraqis might teach them a little Arabic or tip them off to trouble in the neighborhood. The soldiers would teach the children American sayings, listen to pleas for more rebuilding and hand out candy.
But by May, neighborhoods around Sadr City had become a battleground for the followers of rebel cleric Muqtada al Sadr. Even law-abiding Iraqis were spitting at soldiers to show their support for the rebels, or, worse, letting them make their way into a trouble spot without saying a word.
The 1,000 troops at Camp Eagle, the base that patrols Sadr City’s surrounding provinces, have been hit by 800 mortar rounds in less than six months, more than twice as many as any other base in Baghdad, said Lt. Col. Tim Meredith, a senior officer at the camp.
On a Friday night patrol earlier this month, Sgt. Hermann Groombridge and three of his soldiers went hunting for the men who’d just launched a mortar at Camp Eagle. A global positioning system gave them a fix on where the mortar was launched, so they headed toward that neighborhood.
En route, young Iraqi men shot them looks that were a mix of fascination and disgust, rage and confusion. And, of course, fear. Often, they have to come from behind the homemade blast walls around their houses to give any looks at all.
The children sometimes give the soldiers similar looks, but more often they’re eager to interact with them. Their demands are a lot easier to meet than those of the adults around them – candy and a dollar, versus jobs and better infrastructure. So Dum Dums candies have become a crucial part of a Sadr City soldier’s gear.
And the children don’t fear someone seeing them interact with soldiers. Adult family members said being seen talking to Americans could get them killed by insurgents.
That night, after the soldiers determined it was safe enough to leave their Humvees, they approached a nearby homeowner and asked who launched the mortar.
The man said he knew nothing, but the soldiers kept pressing. He eventually said the mortar was launched from the opposite direction the GPS indicated. Children began coming out from behind the walls and telling what they knew. They got candy in return.
“Maybe he was afraid for his family,” Groombridge, 35, of Virginia Beach, Va., said afterward.
Groombridge and his comrades never found the attackers that night, and Groombridge said they probably never would. By the next morning, another three mortars had landed on the base.
Sgt. Jacob Tate knew it would be a bad day minutes after he left the base on Aug. 10: The streets were empty in the middle of the afternoon.
Tate, 24, of Toledo, Ohio, and his colleagues had made their way onto Highway 10 for an afternoon patrol near al Fiidilya, which borders Sadr City.
A truck was on fire, and they went to investigate. They saw a crowd of people, but not the usual group of angry young men and precocious children. It was a group of al Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.
The fire had been a ruse to draw the soldiers into an ambush.
Two homemade bombs exploded. Then a rocket-propelled grenade. Then a second one, the one that nearly got Tate. It pierced the driver’s side door and threaded past the driver and his steering wheel before hitting the radio, where it exploded again.
Tate, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, thought he was dead. He remembers kissing his wedding ring. His colleagues told him later that he then got out of the Humvee, spun around and rested his head on the vehicle as though to take a nap.
He was lucky. He had only minor injuries and was back on patrol within three weeks.
Tate has since been a quick studier of atmospherics.
“If a lot of people are out giving us dirty looks, that’s welcome. But if it’s just a few people, that’s a problem,” he said.