The focus now is on the security crackdown in Baghdad, but U.S. troops are also struggling to keep the lid on elsewhere
Nightmares. There is, perhaps, no better example of the changing face of the enemy here than what the 2-3 faced at the beginning of Ashura, five weeks earlier. In what was surely one of the more horrific incidents of the war, the 2-3 was sent to recover a downed Apache helicopter, in an operation dubbed Fallen Angel. What began as a rescue-and-recovery mission soon turned to something quite different, as soldiers began taking heavy fire from what American and Iraqi officials say was a Shiite religious cult that had gathered fighters and women and children in a compound near Najaf. The Army asserts that the cult was plotting the assassination of nearly all the country's Shiite leaders.
What the soldiers saw after the Air Force bombarded the compound for several hours continues to haunt them. There were hundreds of bodies-men, women, and children. "There was one guy that was blown in half, and he had a half-eaten packet of crackers in his pocket," says a soldier, who helped clean up the compound after the attack. "We didn't know what to do, so ... we ate the crackers," he says, his voice cracking as he blows cigarette smoke off into the desert night. Pictures taken by soldiers and the Army's own after-action report show hundreds of the dead of all ages strewn around the defensive trenches and buildings of the compound, many still clutching weapons. "I still have nightmares about those kids," says one of the young medics who treated the survivors the day after the bombardment.
For members of the Stryker unit, the mission is made tougher with the knowledge that whatever gains are made can be wiped out by the next sectarian or terrorist attack. Most of all, soldiers lament, it's difficult to show to the increasingly disillusioned people back home that any progress is being made. "Americans like football, not soccer," says one senior U.S. commander involved in operational planning in the areas south of Baghdad. "In football, if the ball moves backwards, it's a penalty. But in soccer it's seen as a way to eventually move forward. If the American people could see those longer-term goals, perhaps they'd feel differently."
It's a fitting analogy, as far as it goes. But perhaps the more relevant point about the two sporting contests-and the war here-is that they are all ultimately waged against a ticking clock.