By Pamela Hess
Mar 9, 2007
First of two parts: Standing at the painted iron gate blocking cars to the newly named Martyrs Market in Mahmudiyah, one of the capital cities in the so-called "Triangle of Death" south of Baghdad, you would not know the carnage this place has seen.
On July 17, 2006, the market was even more packed than it is today, and women and children were everywhere. The street was choked with cars, as usual.
Two of them exploded. Men appeared on the rooftops towering over the narrow street and threw grenades into the panicked crowd, and opened fire on them with rifles.
Forty innocent people were murdered that day. Another 100 were wounded.
Within a few weeks the debris was cleared, and the people came back.
The market would be attacked six more times by vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDs, by February. Blocked to cars, in October bombers packed C4 explosives into the metal frames of seven bicycles and left them in the market. Five of them were detonated, triggered by cell phones secreted under the seats.
"We got to the point you'd have a VBIED and two hours later, people would be back on the street. It's a message: you're not going to disrupt our life," said Lt. Col. Dan Goldthorpe, deputy commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division.
"These guys will have family members killed. They're very solemn about it and then they move (on). We're more shaken up by it than the community is. But they've lived with that their whole lives. We don't experience that. It's a huge sense of loss for us because that's what we're accustomed to," Goldthorpe said. "They're like, that's another day in this neighborhood."
On this bright, cool winter day, the market street is packed with shoppers and produce.
At the entrance to the pedestrian market there is a painted sign. It is red, green and black, Iraq's national colors, and like many memorials in the United States, it recites a litany of the dead.
The July attackers were believed to be Sunnis trying to provoke a fight in a town that used to be half Shiite, half Sunni. It worked.
"We're sitting on a sectarian fault line here," said Lt. Col. Robert Morschauser, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 15th Field Artillery Regiment.
"It's tough. It's been the most challenging -- this is my third tour in Iraq -- and it's the most challenging so far," he said as he walked down market street to the ribbon cutting.
Most of the town's Sunni residents have moved out to farms on the outskirts of the city. In Baghdad, as many as 100 victims' bodies turn up at the morgue every day. In Mahmoudiyah, there have been 22 in the last two months, said Gen. Ali Jassim Muhamad Al-Frejee, the commander of the Iraqi Army's 4th Brigade, 6th Division.
Morschauser is quick to credit Col. Al-Frejee for the security in town. "He is very smart, very intelligent, tactically sound. He demands respect and gets it," he said.
No Americans are guarding Mahmudiyah city; that is left to the Iraqi army. The local police are not yet a real factor in security.
Like many in the new Iraqi military, Col. al-Frejee was in the old Iraqi army. He remained on post at the Baghdad International Airport until April 9, 2003 and then he went home.
"I stayed in the military all the way up to April 9 not because of Saddam, but only because I'm in the military. My duty made me stay," he said.
Gen. al-Frejee had a friend working for the Coalition Provisional Authority who tipped him off in June 2003 that the Iraqi army was being reformed. He immediately volunteered. "Because we are born here, we live here, our kids are here, our family is here, our tribes are here, the minimum thing we can do is to serve our country," he said.
Though language, culture, two wars and a decade of enmity would contrive to separate men like al-Frejee and Morschauser, their core beliefs as professional military men bond them together.
"Isn't it amazing? And now we're best friends," said Morschauser.
Tuesday, March 13, 2007