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Delayed patrol highlights culture clashes

Published March 8, 2007


BAGHDAD - U.S. soldiers paced around their new outpost in Sadr City, checking their watches, drinking coffee and waiting for their Iraqi partners.

They finally rolled up more than two hours late.

It was supposed to be a seamless display of Iraqi and American cooperation in the urban fiefdom of Iraq's most powerful Shiite militia. What it became, however, was a wrangle of competing commanders, bruised egos and conflicting priorities.

The troubles in launching just one joint mission late Tuesday pointed to the larger - and long-term - challenges of trying to mesh battle-hardened U.S. forces with untested Iraqi recruits as Baghdad's 3-week-old security crackdown tries to hold the ground it has reclaimed.

"If we get out of here by midnight, I'll call this a success," whispered Capt. Josh Taylor, 28, of Florence, Ala., a company commander from the Army's 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment.

Hours before, U.S. soldiers arrived at a former police station which was being converted to an Iraqi-U.S. compound. The patrol was scheduled to get under way about 7 p.m. - with one of the first stops to see an informant promising to identify Mahdi Army members in hiding.

But there were no Iraqi forces around except for the handful of local police officers permanently stationed at the outpost.

The nearly 60 Americans went upstairs to wait. The Iraqis stayed in a makeshift lounge, nibbling on bread and cheese and watching Pimp My Ride on a satellite channel.

U.S. soldiers broke out some coffee. Some plugged in their iPods. Taylor and a few others reviewed plans for the mission.

Still no Iraqis. More coffee. More tunes. More grumbling.

They began to show up about 9 p.m., but the full contingent of about 20 Iraqi troops was not ready until a half hour later.

The Iraqis were not prepared to go just yet, however. There was negotiating ahead.

First up: Who would ride in Humvees and who would walk? Iraqi and U.S. commanders hashed it out through interpreters. The agreement: Officers from both sides could ride and lower-ranking soldiers would walk.

A cell phone rang and the Iraqi lieutenant left the room, cutting off Taylor in mid-sentence.

"I would have already smacked him in his face," Sgt. Chase Decker, 23, of Port Orchard, Wash., muttered from a corner where he and three other U.S. soldiers were watching the culture clash unfold.

Midnight neared and the Iraqi commanders heard a translator explain the operation.

The Iraqis would take the lead. The Americans would follow to observe and help if problems erupted. But it was an Iraqi operation through and through, stressed Taylor.

The informant was no longer part of the plan. He had long since fallen asleep.

Taylor and 1st Lt. Eroch Cordts walked to the company's Humvees, which had been idling for hours. Streets that just hours ago were buzzing with traffic and pedestrians had grown deserted. The night was quiet except for the hum of floodlights on the outpost. Cordts, a 24-year-old platoon leader from Burlington, Iowa, pumped a fist into the air.

"Let's go catch some bad guys," he screamed.

Taylor sighed and smiled.

"Baby steps, now," he cautioned both sides. "Baby steps."

Fast Facts:


Suicide attack: A man blew himself up in a cafe Wednesday, killing 30 people as a national wave of violence left 90 Iraqis dead.

Car bomb: TV camera operator Youssef Sabri of the Shiite-owned Biladi satellite station, died in a car bombing that killed 12 police commandos and 10 civilians.

Americans killed: A bomb killed three American soldiers trying to clear explosives from a major highway, the U.S. military said. One American soldier was wounded.

Bodies found: Police reported finding 10 bullet-ridden bodies throughout Baghdad.

In Washington: Defense Secretary Robert Gates cited early indications that the Iraqi government is meeting the commitments it made to bolster security, although he cautioned that it was too early to reach any firm conclusions about the outcome.

Baghdad conference: Iran confirmed it will take part in an international conference alongside the United States in Baghdad on Saturday.

[Last modified March 8, 2007, 01:57:06]

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