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Sadr City bomb squad: Looking for trouble before it explodes


ImageNew York Times: The bland job description is “route clearance,” but it is one of the most unglamorous and dangerous missions in Iraq.

The New York Times

Published: May 11, 2008

ImageBAGHDAD — The bland job description is “route clearance,” but it is one of the most unglamorous and dangerous missions in Iraq. Creeping along the scarred streets of Sadr City, the soldiers search for roadside bombs around the clock, using bright spotlights at night that make them a big, bright target.

“We are lit up like the sun at night,” said Specialist Chance Guzman, a forklift driver in a St. Louis scrap yard before his National Guard unit, the 1138th Engineer Company, deployed to Iraq from Missouri.

He spoke after a night mission during which his platoon found two bombs, or improvised explosive devices, as they are known by the military, avoided the blast from a third bomb, took gunfire from an alley and eluded two mortar rounds.

The unit’s mission was crucial as fighting continued last week between American soldiers and Shiite militias in Sadr City, the densely populated Shiite neighborhood. As they have done successfully to tamp down violence in other parts of Baghdad, American forces are erecting a massive wall that is to be a dividing line between the militia-controlled areas to the north and the safe zone American and Iraqi forces want to establish to the south.

Route clearance teams have been opening the way for the construction while working to keep the streets south of the barrier free of bombs that the militias keep trying to sneak into trash heaps, wedge against curbs or otherwise hide in the ample debris in the streets. Most of the time the soldiers find the bombs before they explode, but sometimes the bombs find them, producing powerful blasts that rock their armored vehicles and reverberate through the streets.

“Given where we are at, the amount of action we are seeing and the amount of detonations on the vehicles, we are amazingly fortunate,” said Lt. Carter Job Roberts, the leader of the company’s 27-member First Platoon.

Good fortune, however, is a relative notion in Baghdad. Several members of the platoon have already earned Purple Hearts, and one gunner was lost to a rocket-propelled grenade. “We’re bullet magnets,” said Specialist Michael Jason McMillan, a Missouri college student whose studies have been interrupted by two deployments to Iraq. He was hit by shrapnel in the arm and above the lip while manning the turret during a mission in October but was soon back on duty.

One night in late April, the bomb-clearing platoon set off on Al Quds Street, a four-lane thoroughfare where the wall is being built. The militias’ bomb of choice is the explosively formed penetrator, or E.F.P., a devastatingly effective weapon, which can penetrate many types of armor and which American intelligence asserts is supplied by Iran.

But bombs are not the only worry. Armed with rocket-propelled grenades, small arms and mortars, militia fighters are often primed to attack when an American or Iraqi vehicle is stopped by a bomb blast.

Specialist Guzman carried a few talismans for an extra measure of protection: a religious pendant given to him by his father, the star from an old American flag that was sent by schoolchildren back home and an ace of spades playing card that was fixed to his helmet.

As the platoon drove along that night, it was not clear if his luck would hold out. A building in the distance was smoldering from a previous battle. It had been hit by an M1 tank after American soldiers concluded that militiamen were using it as a perch.

A Husky, an ungainly looking vehicle with a large mechanical arm, led the way on the north side of the road. The arm of the Husky is equipped with a camera, and the vehicle has an outsize blower to puff away trash that might conceal a bomb. It was driven by Specialist Paul Williamson, who was encased in a small armored cab.

The militias are well practiced at employing the bombs. One tactic is to place a bomb, or a decoy, in a visible portion of the road to distract the soldiers and divert them into the path of a powerful hidden explosive.

Constant attacks by Apache helicopters and Predator drones have taken their toll on the militia fighters, who often do not have enough time to carefully camouflage the bombs they try to sneak into the streets the Americans have already cleared.

“The ones that are hard to find are in the areas we have not been in yet,” said Lieutenant Roberts, alluding to streets like Al Quds.

As the vehicles proceeded, Specialist Williamson spied an overturned wheelbarrow, which he flipped over with the Husky’s mechanical arm, the soldiers recalled. Behind it was a block draped with a T-shirt. Wires appeared to be attached to the block, a telltale sign of an explosively formed penetrator set to be fired by a hidden triggerman.

The Husky pulled back, and members of an explosive ordnance team climbed out of their vehicle and placed a small robot on the ground to take a closer look. The robot was equipped with a camera, and the team members maneuvered it forward to confirm the find.

Gunfire erupted from an alley and the robot began zigging and zagging as a soldier responded with a .50-caliber gun. The robot survived the cross-fire, Specialist Guzman explained, and it was sent forward again, this time with a chunk of C-4 explosive, which it placed to destroy the bomb. The blast sent a shudder through Specialist Guzman’s vehicle and splattered it with a cloud of dust.

But the night was far from over. A bomb exploded near the road-clearance vehicles to the rear, but it missed them. Then a large bomb was discovered to the front, hidden this time inside a green can that was covered with an empty sandbag. The explosive ordnance team again deployed the robot to destroy it.

As the soldiers were turning around to return to base, two mortar rounds landed with resounding booms, one of which was close enough to puncture a tire of one of the vehicles. It was a slow leak and the route clearance team managed to drive back without further incident.

In his civilian life, Lieutenant Roberts, 41, is the shipping manager for a nuclear reactor at the University of Missouri. The reactor is used for medical research, and he saw a parallel between his university work and his Sadr City mission of protecting American and Iraqi forces from roadside bombs.

“I get to go to work and know, if I have done my job right, people will be alive who probably would not be otherwise,” Lieutenant Roberts said.

The next morning, the platoon set out again to check the main streets south of Al Quds Street. Specialist Manual Pavon, a construction worker in civilian life, was in front as the Husky driver.

His fellow soldiers consider him to be one of the luckiest men in the company. It was Specialist Pavon who was driving a RG-31 armored vehicle on the earlier mission in which the gunner was killed by the rocket-propelled grenade. The round flew through the turret and exited through a window on the driver’s side of the vehicle. Specialist Pavon was hunched over the steering wheel when the attack occurred and was unscathed.

As Specialist Pavon searched for bombs he listened to music on his iPod. Country tunes are a good choice for Sadr City, he explained, because they are “a little calmer.” Before long, a suspicious-looking item was found in an alley. It was blasted by a small charge, determined to be a decoy and the soldiers moved on.

The Husky is not equipped with a gun, but that did not seem to worry Specialist Pavon, who said the soldiers in the vehicle that trailed behind would take care of the threats. “They got me covered, and I look on the road for them,” he said. “That is pretty much all it is.”

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