Friday, May 16, 2008
Soldiers follow instincts as ‘weird vibe’ cuts short patrol near Sadr City area

By Michael Gisick, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Friday, May 16, 2008

BAGHDAD — The market in the New Baghdad area near Sadr City is one of the few places here where fighting has been sporadic enough in recent weeks for U.S. troops to embark on regular foot patrols, handing out leaflets and encouraging people to call in tips on militants.

But on Tuesday night, a small patrol of American soldiers made it only a few blocks from their outpost before deciding to pack it in.

"I don’t know about you guys, but I’m getting a bad feeling," said Staff Sgt. Mike Sobkowski, the patrol’s leader.

The other men from Company C agreed. As children followed them, begging, several old men told them it would be better if they didn’t come out. They overheard another group of men — who turned out to be Iraqi police officers — laughing and saying "Jaysh al-Mahdi."

"It’s just a weird vibe out here tonight," said Sobkowski, 37, of West Seneca, N.Y.

Though a cease-fire announced on Monday between the Iraqi government and clerics loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr seemed to have brought some respite in the weeks-long fighting with Shiite militiamen in and around Sadr City, the fighting has not ceased. Clashes continued inside the huge Shiite slum, and U.S. troops just outside its concrete walls reported attacks by small-arms fire and mortars on Monday and Tuesday, responding with mortar rounds of their own.

"It seems to have quieted down somewhat, but we’re still seeing incidents," said Lt. Col. Scott McKean, commander of 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, Company C’s unit.

Other units under 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, which patrols the outside of Sadr City’s southern and eastern walls, also reported continued fighting, said Maj. Joey Sullinger, a brigade spokesman.

"We need more time in order to make an accurate assessment as to whether activity in our operating environment has increased or decreased," he said.

Commanders here see the continued violence in part as a reflection of a fractured landscape in which groups of militiamen seem to operate with little centralized control — from al-Sadr or otherwise. American officials have long sought to downplay the notion that they or the Iraqi forces are directly fighting Sadr’s Mahdi Army, instead blaming the violence on criminal gangs and so-called "special groups," militias that the Americans say are funded and trained by Iran.

"We have two or three cells of special group leaders and they’ve been able to exert some influence over the population, often by coercion," McKean said. "What we see here, it’s not really guys in black pajamas and green headbands. We don’t see a lot of guys carrying guns."

Soldiers here have seen nearly as much fighting as those inside Sadr City. Four of 1st Battalion’s men have been killed in the last six weeks, and a soldier from another unit died in a rocket attack on their home at Forward Operating Base Rustamiyah, which has been attacked by indirect fire more than 60 times since fighting erupted in late March.

The battalion has also picked up signs of fighting between Shiite factions. McKean said several of the local "special groups" are believed to be in competition, and the bodies of seven men thought to be guards with the Badr Brigade, a militia associated with a Shiite political rival of Sadr, were found dumped in the street a week ago, naked and tortured.

"It’s fuzzy to tell what’s just crime and what’s militia," Sobkowski said. "The people say everything is militia. Everybody loves to say ‘JAM,’ but in reality those guys may just claim to be JAM when they’re really just criminals."

Still, Sobkowski said, the attacks focused on American troops seem to signal something out there besides simple criminals.

"You wouldn’t think criminals would want to start a fight with us," he said.

Wednesday morning brought word that the patrol’s caution the night before may have been a solid hunch. Part of the market burned down overnight and, according to a tip, a bomb had been placed in the road a few blocks from where the soldiers had turned back.

Of course, they noted, that tip might be nonsense too. But three days before, a small bomb had exploded just behind their patrol in the same area, blowing the legs off a dog that was following them. The soldiers responded with a door-to-door sweep, kicking in a few.

"Maybe that’s why we were getting a weird vibe," one of the soldiers offered after Tuesday’s patrol.

"Yeah," Sobkowski said, "but they tried to blow us up."