The army convoy rattled through Al-Adhamiya like a carnival roller coaster, each turn as blind as the next. Not that the soldiers could see much anyway. Night had fallen on the old Baghdad quarter, a byzantine maze lit only by kerosene lamps flickering from rugged stone houses. We moved warily in the darkness, patrolling for insurgents in blind alleys custom-made for ambushes and narrow passages perfect for concealing roadside bombs. Only the piercing wail of a minarets call to prayer broke the silence. It was anyones bet who faced a more dire risk, the hunted in terrorist cells or the hunters in Humvees, along with whom I was riding under a half moon this December 10, 2003.
I was in Iraq to profile the American soldier as Person of the Year for Time magazine. It was a dream assignment, a chance to escape Washington and work in exotic environs on a big story. I had teamed up with another reporter, Romesh Ratnesar, and set out three weeks earlier to find a unit representative of the 120,000 U.S. troops then in Iraq. We had chosen a platoon of the First Armored Division that operated in a district of northwest Baghdad considered crucial to any hope of securing Iraq. Al-Adhamiya was nestled in a bend of the Tigris River, a historic crossroads for the Sunni Muslims who dominated political life in the days of Saddam Hussein. Sunnis actively fueled the anti-U.S. resistance after he fled: insurgents launched rockets from its alleyways, hid weapons in houses, and seeded the roads with booby-trapped bombs concealed in everything from trash to dead cats.
The platoons commander had been killed by a roadside device in late October. I was reminded of his death every time I strapped on body armora sixteen-pound Kevlar vest with super-hard ceramic insertsas I did this chilly night before climbing into the cab of one of three Humvees lined up for the patrol. The sergeant had a different plan. No, youre going in the high-back, he said, directing me to an open-air vehicle usually used to transport equipment or troops. Okay, lets go out there and be targets, he barked as our convoy pulled out for the 8 p.m. patrol.
The soldiers played a daring game of chicken, cruising the streets to draw fire and lure resisters. But tonight there seemed to be no takers. We emerged an hour later into Al-Adhamiyas main marketplace, a large treeless square that was host to what looked like a block party in full swing. Old men, rocking back and forth on tiny stools, shuffled dominoes. Boys volleyed soccer balls. Women veiled in black fed their children from stalls of roasted chickens and shashlik. No one seemed to notice the foreign invaders passing by. I was scribbling notes from the wooden bench of my Humvee, which was built like a large pickup truck. Across from me, Time photographer Jim Nachtwey was snapping pictures. Two young soldiers, Private Orion Jenks and Private First Class Jim Beverly, pointed M-16s out of the back of the vehicle and kibitzed about Baghdads crazy drivers.
Id hate to have a nice car here, said Jenks, a lanky, twenty-two-year-old Californian who had joined the platoon a few days earlier.
Yeah, someone would ding you, and youre in a country that has no gun control laws, Beverly joked back. At nineteen, he was even younger than Jenks, a baby-faced kid from Ohio who sketched fantasy figures in his spare time.
Sergeant Ron Buxton, a short and taut Missourian in his early thirties, was riding shotgun in the cab. He whipped around and yelled, I dont care if you joke or smoke, but make sure you watch our back.
We turned onto Market Street a few minutes before nine and got stuck in traffic in front of the Abu Hanifa Mosque. Second in the line, our Humvee was idling near a clock tower of the sacred Sunni shrine that U.S. tanks had poked a hole in nine months earlier. Elaborate wooden scaffolding encircled the tower now. I wondered if the heart of this ancient capital would mend as easily.
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