11 April 2004

Knight Ridder


U.S. soldiers were set to leave, but fighting calls them back


By Carol Rosenberg

Knight Ridder

AL-KUT, Iraq -- One year after invading Iraq, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jorge Velez was meant to be heading home today from Baghdad. Instead, the platoon sergeant was smack in the center of this restive Shiite heartland Saturday, kicking in doors and staging raids as Killer Troop hunted down supporters of America's newest Iraqi enemy, Muqtada al-Sadr.

About 600 U.S. 1st Armored Division personnel rushed into town Thursday, Velez among them, two days after allied Ukrainian troops abandoned it to about 500 of Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen. By nightfall, the Americans were in their fiercest combat in months -- withering rounds of rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov rifle fire that wounded three soldiers and tied them down for hours as they fought across a bridge over the Tigris River to reach this city of 250,000.

At 1 a.m. today Iraqi time, brigade commander Col. Rob Baker declared that U.S. forces had broken the back of the Madhi Army in Al-Kut and U.S. troops were in command. ``They're no longer an organized resistance,'' he said, describing three days of combined air, armor and ground assaults that ``hit them with a sledgehammer and put them in perspective.''

The soldiers in Saturday's raid were deadly serious as they searched the empty ruins of an old Baath Party compound for the enemy. But when the work was done, the mood became bitter among the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment -- because they had gotten word on the eve of their departure that their one-year tour is delayed, indefinitely.

Tougher fights may lie ahead in the young militant sheik's strongholds in An-Najaf and Karbala.

``It's hard,'' said Velez, 30, of Caguas, Puerto Rico. ``It's time to go. A year is a long time in Iraq. You're tense all the time.''

Pentagon officials also are considering whether to order into Iraq additional troops previously not part of the current rotation plan.

In the Persian Gulf on Saturday, troops were taking the shrink-wrap off the 1st Armored Division attack aircraft, which had been packed onto ships before this week's southern Shiite rebellion, to put them back into service.

In short, the troops that had survived a year of deadly roadside bombs and sniping attacks in Baghdad were back in battle again, and they were disappointed.

``Me, too. But I'm pretty certain that the soldiers understand their mission here. And they're going to finish the job, finish the fight here,'' said Brig. Gen. Mike Scaparrotti, who commanded the rapid-reaction force that rushed south as Sadr's militia was overrunning Iraqi police and coalition compounds.

Saturday, Sadr's forces were still in charge and more than a million Muslims were in Karbala to circle the shrine for Hussein, revered grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who died centuries ago in battle. Coalition forces were at best on the fringes, under commanders' orders to stay away from the weekend pilgrimage.

Saturday night, the Army said it was finishing the job in Al-Kut, a city that fell to Marines a year ago and has since been patrolled by Polish and Ukrainian troops, whose separately negotiated rules of engagement meant they were here not as combatants, but as peacekeepers.

In three days of combat, commanders took Al-Kut and killed, captured or wounded 230 of an estimated 400-500 Mahdi Army militiamen who had taken charge of the city by overrunning the coalition compound and stations for the newly trained Iraqi police.

Aircraft bombed Sadr headquarters and ground forces recaptured the local TV station and coalition offices, which about 1,100 Ukrainian soldiers had abandoned Tuesday when black-clad gunmen overran it.

``Motivation is down,'' says Velez. ``We came here and did our jobs. Why can't other guys come and do their jobs, too?''

On March 26, the troops packed personal goods -- a year's worth of cards and letters, photos and souvenirs -- and mailed them home in preparation to turn over their watch to fresh forces.Soldiers booked cruises and plane tickets and planned holidays.

Spec. Everett Colby, 20, of Cooper City, Fla., a Black Hawk helicopter crew chief, paid several thousand dollars for non-refundable airline tickets -- before someone broke the news that the Sadr forces would make him miss his June 25 Stateside wedding.

``If you interviewed me on the day they told me, I was just shocked,'' said Colby. ``This is horrible. I don't like this place,'' he said, adding that there was one small point of consolation. His fiancee had already left Baghdad for Germany, but she was being recalled along with other 1st Armored Division soldiers.

So they would marry in June anyway. In Iraq.