BAGHDAD â€” Just before sunset, US soldiers from the Bushmaster Troop stop playing basketball and prepare to set off on another patrol in Dura, one of Baghdad’s most dangerous districts which they say is becoming safer.
The soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division cheerfully load up with drinks and ammunition, putting down their music players and picking up body armour and M4 machineguns.
They have been patrolling the southern part of the Iraqi capital for over eight months, and say that increased cooperation from locals is now helping them win the fight against the raging insurgency. â€œIt depends on where you are. Some areas are nice… kids waving. Other areas people go inside. No one waves,â€ says patrol leader Captain Paul Murach.
â€œWhen they [residents] go in, there is a good chance that an IED [improvised explosive device] is there,â€ the 25-year-old adds.
Dura is the scene of regular bombings, usually targeting Iraqi or American forces, but also the Shiite minority. A suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque in the area earlier this year killed 17 people.
Roadside bombings are a daily nightmare for US troops in Iraq, accounting for many of the 1,880-plus Americans killed in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.
But, says Sergeant First Class William Hambrick, US forces have recently uncovered several of the makeshift bombs following tip-offs from locals.
While Dura is inhabited mainly by Sunni Arabs, whose elite ruled under former dictator Saddam Hussein and who are believed to be driving the insurgency, smaller Shiite and Christian communities also live in the district. Iraqi drivers keep their distance as the armoured Humvees trundle down the district’s dusty roads, knowing it may cost them their lives if they get too close to twitchy gunners fearful of suicide attacks.
The convoy slows down at the site of a car bomb which exploded prematurely a day earlier, killing the three people inside believed to have been transporting the bomb and leaving debris from the white car strewn along the roadside.
Deeper into Dura’s dark streets, men puffing on water pipes eye the passing convoy. When the patrol comes to a standstill, people keep their distance although some vendors return soldiers’ greetings.
â€œExcuse us, it is not the right time to talk,â€ says one man when asked if he feels safe around US forces in Dura, before quickly hurrying away with his two friends.
â€œI’m not from this neighbourhood,â€ says another, moving on just as quickly.
Ostensibly, Iraqi police and Public Order Battalions are responsible for Dura, with US troops on hand to provide backup when needed. Brand-new but bullet-riddled police vehicles testify to the frequency of insurgent attacks.
Around midnight, the convoy heads back towards the fortified Green Zone after what has been a relatively quiet night out, delayed only by Iraqi police calling for backup to raid a house down the district’s narrow alleys.
Back at base, several of the men who served during the 2003 US-led invasion say they much prefer their time patrolling now.
â€œI didn’t take off my chemical suit and boots for two weeks… We slept in our Bradley vehicles,â€ says Sergeant Christopher King, wandering around the barracks in flip-flops.
The following day, Captain Timon Groves, who leads the Bushmaster Troop, says he is neither afraid nor in a hurry, insisting he is helping Iraqis â€œestablish democracy, which takes time.â€
Children smile and wave at the daytime patrol, some shouting â€œfootballâ€ in the hope of freebies. Groves smiles and waves back, but graffiti on the wall behind the children calls in Arabic for â€œDeath to America which desecrated the Koran.â€