War Stories

The Great Wall of Indifference

On patrol inside Baghdad’s tensest neighborhood.

Azamiyah raid

Combat Outpost Fort Apache, Azamiyah. The news of late has focused upon this Sunni district in northeast Baghdad, where materials for a 12-foot-high concrete barrier have been positioned along a main avenue. Of the dozens of barriers across the city being laid down—principally by U.S. military and contractors—Azamiyah was the one that caught international attention when the residents complained the government was “imprisioning and punishing them for the acts of a few” by forcing all cars to pass through check points. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, on a visit to Egypt, ordered the barrier halted, and the American ambassador agreed to comply.

On the surface, the episode is a triumph for the press in bringing to international attention an injustice, and for the prime minister in immediately responding and standing up for the rights of the Sunni minority.

On the ground, the episode is less inspiring. Here at Fort Apache in Azamiyah, Charlie Company is on the eighth month of a 15-month tour in a combat outpost along the Tigris. (It was the setting for the 2005 documentary Gunner Palace.) Six of the first 110 soldiers to patrol in Azamiyah, a stronghold for Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida operatives, have been killed. 1st Sgt. Kenneth J. Hendrix had been hoping Azamiyah would make headlines because of the valor of Spc. Ross McGinnis of Knox, Pa., who has been nominated for the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 4, while patrolling Azamiyah’s narrow streets, a grenade was pitched into McGinnis’ Humvee, and he fell on it, sacrificing his own life to save the lives of his fellow soldiers.

Patrols through trash-clogged streets, past shuttered shops and unemployed crowds of unsmiling young men, are the daily fare for Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 26th Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. On April 22, while Maliki was ordering a halt to the barrier, four Humvees from Charlie were careening through the back streets a few blocks north of where the barrier was supposed to be erected. The walls along the alleyways nearly scraped the sides of the armored vehicles as they swerved around tight corners and gunned down straightaways.

 “We got hit here with two IEDs yesterday,” Capt. Nathaniel Waggoner yelled to me. “The trigger men are outsiders. They don’t give a damn what happens to the locals.”

The Humvees skidded to a stop beside some rundown shops, and soldiers and a few Special Forces commandos piled out, pitching grey and purple smoke grenades into the empty, trash-strewn street.

“A sniper got one of us in the leg yesterday,” the captain warned. “Stay in the doorways.”

The soldiers paused, eyeing a line of padlocked shops and checking their photo maps. An interpreter spoke quickly to a startled shopkeeper, who pointed at a shoe store and then disappeared into the smoke. They snapped a lock, rushed into the small store, and rifled through the receipt drawer and several boxes of shoes, looking for a list. With a broom, they poked each wall, listening for a hollow echo. In less than five minutes, they were back in their gun trucks, swerving wildly along a main street.

We stopped in a middle-class neighborhood and knocked on a door at random. The patrols make about 15 such unplanned stops a day, in hopes of chancing on insurgents. The portly owner showed us in, and a few soldiers went upstairs and returned with an AK-47 wrapped in white plastic covered with dirt. Waggoner looked at the weapon.

“Sometimes we turn something up, like bomb-making material. We send to prison about 10 a month,” Waggoner said. “This guy is probably OK.”

Waggoner asked why he had buried his rifle, since every house is allowed a weapon for self-defense. The man responded with a rambling story.

“Uh-uh, no sale,” Waggoner said. “Have the jundis [Iraqi army soldiers] been around here?”

When the man nodded, Waggoner handed him back the rifle, shook hands, and left.

“The Iraqi army around here control the police. They’re Shiites, many from Sadr City,”

Waggoner explained on the drive back to the combat outpost. “They’ll confiscate AKs. So the residents hide them. We get more info and cooperation when we’re on our own.”

Back at Apache, Sgt. Robin Johnson, a squad leader who worked with the nearby Iraqi army battalion, explained the situation.

“When we arrived, the residents were getting pushed back by JAM [the Shiite Jesh al Mahdi] militia from Sadr City. It’s very sectarian here,” Johnson said. “The Sunnis believe the police and half the army’s cooperating with JAM. They get shot at more than we do. We’ve been here eight months. The residents are getting to know us. The al-Qaida guys go after us, but not the local Sunni militia.”

Estimates of Azamiyah’s population range from 400,000 up to close to 1 million. The district is the strongest Sunni bastion in East Baghdad, with a distinct al-Qaida influence. The district council representative was murdered in December in a setup that involved Shiite officials. His killers were never found. Last month, the new representative was shot 18 times in broad daylight on Azamiyah’s main street—by Sunni gunmen. Unemployment is more than 50 percent.

A barrier would restrict both al-Qaida and the JAM, easing pressure on the people. But it’s easy to persuade the residents to object to anything done by what they call “the Iranian government of Maliki.”

The prime minister’s gesture at stopping the Azamiyah barrier indicated he isn’t working closely with his own generals, who sit side by side with the American officers planning how to bring stability and reduce violence in every district in Baghdad. There was nothing secret about the barrier or the materials lining the street. The prime minister was out of touch.

Grief at Rusafa

Worse, he was out of country. Last week, there was a horrific bombing in the parking lot of a central market in Rusafa, about one mile directly south of Azamiyah. More than 160 Iraqis were killed. Two days later, I accompanied Capt. Bo Dennis of the 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, and his squad to the scene of the carnage. Police at a checkpoint two blocks from the explosion warned us not to proceed because they were receiving sniper fire.

We walked on to the parking lot—actually, an open square. It was a scene from Dante, a deep black hole in the macadam, burnt-out shells of cars strewn about, odd bits of clothing, sandals, and shoes. The tall, grey concrete apartment buildings in the background were gouged and pitted, all windows shattered. The cries of women and children echoed across the square.

We were immediately surrounded by dozens of grief-stricken, angry men. They were shocked and bitter. They confronted us, shouting and pushing up. We expressed our sorrow and our own shock at the horror. The bitterness of the men was palpable.

But they weren’t angry at us. One after another, they screamed their impotent rage.

Anger at Rusafa

“You Americans come here. You came,” they shouted. “But where is our government? Why do they not come? Why? Who takes care of those women and children? All their men are dead. Where is our government?”

No elected or appointed official in the United States would keep his job a day if he turned his back on such a stunning tragedy. And there was Prime Minister Maliki, in Egypt, condemning the Azamiyah barrier intended to reduce the killing and shield the innocents from the monsters who slaughter so ravenously.