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Archive for Friday, April 6, 2007

Fort Riley outpost faces stiff challenges

April 6, 2007

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— Call it a Baghdad housewarming.

In the week since the soldiers of the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment from Fort Riley, Kan., moved into an abandoned seminary in southern Baghdad's volatile Mekanik neighborhood, they've been peppered with small-arms fire, three mortar attacks and a rocket-propelled grenade.

The grenade was launched from 150 yards away and hit the windshield of a parked Humvee, but it didn't detonate. An Army sniper equipped with a .240-caliber machine gun had a clear bead on the attacker but didn't pull the trigger because there was a gaggle of children around.

The challenges of neighborhoods like Mekanik are at the heart of the new U.S. military strategy, which aims to insert U.S. troops into the heart of the sectarian violence in Baghdad.

As part of the two-month-old security crackdown in the capital, the U.S. military is moving combat troops out of fortress-like operating bases where they've lived since the war began and into smaller neighborhood outposts throughout the city.

Twenty-two such outposts have been established, with more on the way. From their new homes the troops are expected to conduct more frequent patrols, forge relationships with residents and improve intelligence gathering.

It's a textbook counterinsurgency tactic, one American commanders acknowledge they should've employed earlier. But four years into the war, with sectarian divisions hardening in neighborhoods across Baghdad, placing U.S. troops closer to the roots of the violence represents a major military gamble.

"Three hundred meters away and we're in the 'hood. We know they're going to test us," said Maj. Craig Manville, of Springfield, Mo., deputy commander of the Fort Riley squadron, part of the 4th Brigade 1st Infantry Division.

When the troops from Fort Riley came upon the brick seminary while on patrol, it appeared to have been abandoned hastily, with reading glasses and half-empty soda cans still sitting atop desks. No one turned up for several days, and the soldiers commandeered the building.

The outpost "allows us to project patrols from right here in the neighborhood," said the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jim Crider, of Hopkinsville, Ky. "Having American forces here is the best security the people of this neighborhood could hope for."

Working with Iraqi forces, they've already made one score - a cache of weapons hidden in a Shiite mosque a few blocks from the outpost. Iraqi security officials said that the American presence has encouraged some families to return home.

While some combat outposts will be staffed jointly by U.S. and Iraqi forces, Combat Outpost "Amanche" will be American-only for now. Militias have heavily infiltrated the local forces, and while U.S. soldiers conduct patrols with the Iraqis and praise their commanders, they keep the rank-and-file at arm's length.

"For the most part we don't tell them where we're going and what we're going to do until we do it - and only after we take away their cell phones," Crider said.

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