KARBALA, IRAQThe Army's 101st Airborne Division has been moving through Iraqi cities by hopscotching from schoolhouse to schoolhousesearching for weapons, military garrisons, and a place to sleep.
Soldiers have found weapons caches in many of the schools they have searched. Schools are on the U.S. military's protected target listmeaning that Air Force bombers will not target them. As a result, Fedayeen militias have taken over many schoolhouses, making them into headquarters and armories. In one Karbala school, U.S. soldiers found UNICEF biscuits and rice stored along with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Officers from the 101st Airborne believe that is evidence that the Iraqi military was stealing food meant for children and using it to feed soldiers.
Though the U.S. military has condemned Iraq's use of the schools to store weapons and house soldiers, commanders of the 101st have repeatedly set up temporary command posts in schoolhouses and garrisoned troops overnight in playgrounds. Commanders say that using the schools in such a way is permissible because Saddam Hussein's regime had already militarized the schools and U.S. forces are staying in them for only a few days at most. "The enemy used these schools as staging areas. That makes these protected sites legitimate targets," says Col. Joseph Anderson, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division.
Anderson added that on a purely practical level there are few other places where American soldiers attacking Iraqi militias can safely hole up overnight. "You have to go somewhere in the city," he says. "You aren't going into open areas. You aren't going into people's homes. Schools give you a public place that the enemy has chosen to make into a compound."
Though the Air Force will not bomb schools, they are not internationally recognized protected sites, says Capt. Teresa Raymond, the judge advocate general for the 2nd Brigade. International law prohibits soldiers from garrisoning themselves in mosques, museums, and culturally significant sitesbut no such rules exist for schools.
Nevertheless, the military's reliance on schools poses some risks. The airborne division has done so much schoolhouse-to-schoolhouse hopping that Iraqi militiamen can most likely predict where the American infantry will go next. That doesn't worry commanders. Capt. James McGahey, commander of the Bravo Company of the 2nd Brigade's 3rd Battalion, said letting the enemy know where the soldiers are headed has its advantages. "I want them to know where we are going," says McGahey. "Either we get into a big fight or they run away. It won't be these little skirmishes."
More significantly, taking over schools may anger locals. Some schools that soldiers from the 101st have used seem to have been shuttered years ago. The 1st Brigade made its headquarters in a school outside Najaf that had been taken over by a neighboring farm. But in Karbala some schools seem to have been closed for a much shorter time.
One school had a 2003 calendar on the wall and apparently recent artwork by children. A thick layer of dust covered most tables and chairs in the schoolhouse, and most of the windows were broken. The school was to be a temporary command post for the 3rd Battalion of the 2nd Brigade, so last Sunday a Bradley fighting vehicle punched a hole in the schoolyard wall, and a company of soldiers marched in.
As the soldiers rested, a large crowd gathered outside around the Bradley. A neighborhood leader, a man dressed in a black cloak and a turban, approached the Bradley's commander, seemingly upset that the soldiers were in the school. After a brief conversation, the man pushed the crowd back. "He was asking why we didn't use the door," says Sgt. 1st Class David Wardlow, commander of the Bradley. "It's tactics, but I didn't have time to explain it to him."
Enemy militia are most likely to train their guns on a door, so to avoid ambush tanks or other mechanized forces bust a hole in the wall to let soldiers through.
Though the crowd later threw rocks over the wall at the soldiers, commanders said they believed the community was pleased with their presence and was not angered by the use of the schools.
The damage to schools includes more than just holes in walls. Some school equipment has become war trophies. One 101st Division humvee is decorated with skulls taken from an anatomical model found inside a school. Other soldiers have taken abacuses and English-language textbooks.
Although the Army has no legal responsibility to repair damage caused during combat maneuvers, commanders say they intend to leave the schools in better condition than they found them. Senior noncommissioned officers make sure soldiers collect their trash and clean up the classrooms and schoolyards. Col. Ben Hodges, commander of the 1st Brigade, said he planned to repair the abandoned schoolhouse he had turned into a headquarters. And 2nd Brigade soldiers said breached walls would be fixed eventually. "Once the situation stabilizes, we will go back and repair a lot of the damage," says Capt. Curt Barker, of the 318th Tactical Psychological Operations Company. "They aren't going to leave the schools damaged."