Lt. Col. Drake Jackson briefed the 10-man, two-interpeter patrol before it left the relative safety of Foward Operating Base Justice in northwest Baghdad. A sandstorm had let up, and the evening sky was clearing. Some sitting on a concrete bench and some standing, the soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 1-18 Infantry, 1st Infantry Division checked their M4 rifles and M9 pistols. Their body armor and Kevlar helmets were on tight.
"I want to look at the (Tigris) river," the lean 6-foot- 3 Rhode Islander said. "I want to look at Market Street--they're talking about reapportioning forces (at the checkpoints) there." If there was "escalation of force" during the patrol--an attack--he told the soldiers to hunker down. "Charlie Company is our QRF (quick reaction force), but it's easier just to stay down and throw lead."
Their primary weapon, though, would be the flashlights attached to their rifles. "In all likelihood, there will be people in our formation. The new RoE (rules of engagement) are that we try to keep the vehicles out. Bloods and Crips--a tough guy team--could be there."
Ham, one of the interpreters, reminded that a soccer game would be played in a nearby stadium. Iraqis sometimes fire their weapons into the air in celebration. "We always pull for ties," the officer said.
Green and red lasers on their rifle sights would help them line up any target. Two Iraqi National Police officers joined the patrol. "It's good to show we play by the rules," Jackson explained, referring to the June 30 deadline that would mandate combined Coalition Forces and Iraqi operations, unless the brigade was in a "force protection" mode when the op could be only Americans. "They can tell people to do things that we don't get the same response," he said of the Iraqis. "I like having them along."
A deuce-and-a-half, a two-and-a-half-ton truck, carried the patrol to the base gates. They dismounted the truck and, spaced three to five meters apart, ventured into Khadimiya district, site of a shrine that's one of the holiest in Islam.
A dog howled as the patrol moved out, and the smell of charcoal, gasoline and dust hung in the darkening air. Hundreds of Iraqi civilians--some women in black abaya, some in skirts and scarves (the GI's call that "going topless") mingled with men and children on the sidewalks, in the street, outside cafes and shops.
The patrol walked slowly, Staff Sgt. Mark Lancaster at point and Iraqi National Police Pvt. Mushary Bashem right behind. Once the American shined his green laser on a BMW coming toward the patrol too fast. "Slow down," he and Bashem both shouted in Arabic; it did.
Several soldiers said "Salaam aleikum (Peace be unto you)," and put their palm on their chest as they passed Iraqi civilians. Most returned the greeting. Only one man yelled out, "Too bad you guys are leaving!" referring to the June 30 deadline.
At the Tigris River, the patrol took up defensive positions along a wall paralelling the water. Jackson checked out a pump house, which turned out to be empty. As he and others looked in the structure, Lancaster told Bashem, "Face this way and stay facing this way." Bashem asked if he could smoke. The sergeant told him no.
On the way back, a different route, Bashem moved more aggressively than on the way in to stop traffic so the patrol could cross streets. A lemon-slice moon hung in the hazy sky. After about 90 minutes, and five miles in 92-degree heat, the patrol returned, without incident, to the gates of Justice. "Shukran for coming with us," Jackson told the Iraqis.
After the truck deposited the sweating soldiers back near the base headquarters, he assessed the patrol's mission. His take on the river was that because of blast walls and checkpoints, it now posed the only avenue for someone with a bomb to get close to the shrine. He endorsed the Iraqi police plan to beef up the checkpoints" "One guy on duty, that always gets me alert. Three guys can come up to him, 'Here's $50--look the other way.'"
The officer said what the patrol learned could be used as a training tool for the Iraqi police. Although he conceded that he and some other members of the patrol had been "skylined" as they looked for possible sniper locations across the Tigris, he didn't see how they could have learned as much as they did had they stayed on the other side of the road.
"For me, mission accomplished."
The men gathered their gear and headed off for more water, air conditioning. and a shower.