Baghdad — The war in Iraq is not over, but from boot level it hardly appears the same one launched by coalition forces on March 19. Soldiers now find themselves in a conflict with few pitched battles but no peace, trying to carry out missions they never trained for, and dying all the while.
A man on a bridge over the Dialah River came up behind a soldier directing traffic Thursday, put a pistol to the back of his skull and shot him dead. A sniper beside a bridge just down river shot another U.S. Army soldier through the head, killing him. The soldier also had been directing traffic.
Some fellow soldiers say this kind of dying — and the tedious vulnerability that has come to mark their days — is harder to accept than the heavy battles early in the war and their requisite casualties.
“This is the third ‘peacekeeping’ mission I’ve been on,” Specialist Brandon Jenkins, 27, said Friday, scoffing. “I’d rather just be at war. I’d rather be shooting at people and them shooting at me and just have a war.”
The names of the soldiers shot Thursday in east Baghdad, both from the Third Infantry Division, were added to the growing list of dead and wounded as troops and officials struggle to rein in the anarchy that continues across Iraq a month after Baghdad fell.
Private First Class Marlin Rockhold, 23, who was hit by the sniper, and the other soldier, who has not been identified, were both slain in front of giggling children, women coming home from the market and vendors selling cigarettes and sodas.
Swarms of people and vehicles were crossing the narrow bridges. Battered taxis idled just yards away, their drivers chatting in the dust and sun. The shooter with the handgun was somewhere in the throng. The sniper may have been as well. Neither has been caught.
The soldiers’ assault rifles and nearby comrades could provide little protection in such circumstances. The men were, in military parlance, “soft targets” who died as many soldiers in Iraq are dying these days: without an inkling that anything was amis.
STANDING guard Friday in the open courtyard of a burned and looted Baghdad bank, an Iraqi machinegun blasting away just down the street, Corporal Richard MacDougal extinguished one Marlboro and lit another. He’s been away from his two young children so long, eight months, that when he called home the day before his six-year-old son had nothing more to say than, “Hey.”
“We’re sitting ducks,” he said. “And there’s nothing here worth dying for anymore.”
Soldiers are finding Iraq to be a terrifically dangerous place — perhaps more so today than immediately following their victory. But some also seem to have concluded that being a soldier in the world’s best-trained, best-equipped military brings little comfort in a lawless land where many people carry guns and want you to leave or to die.
When a group of four Civil Affairs soldiers left their compound last week and drove through the city, they went by the book: fully armed, wearing their protective gear and taking two Humvees. A gunman on a rooftop opened fire. One round pierced a soldier’s flak vest at its collar seam, medics said, and traveled down through his chest and out his back. Two others suffered less serious wounds. All survived.
Another soldier patrolling a Baghdad intersection last week was shot in the head by a gunman in the crowd. Badly wounded, he survived. Two others died last week, one when his tank went into a river, the other when his Bradley Fighting Vehicle crashed while rushing to aid other troops under fire.
On Friday, three more soldiers died and a fourth was injured when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed, lifting the American death toll here to 146. They were on a mission to pick up a child who had been badly injured in an explosion.
Two soldiers were badly wounded this week when their Humvee ran over an anti-tank mine. Someone had apparently wrapped the device in a paper bag and placed it on Highway 8, the main route between the capital and Baghdad [Saddam] International Airport. It looked, Army officials said, like another piece of roadway trash.