Cover Story

THE THIN GREEN LINE

They rarely make the front page anymore, but thousands of American soldiers are still pulling dangerous duty every day throughout Iraq. In the squalor of Saddam City, they find both a warm welcome and a constant threat. Bob Jones rode along to report on the perils of peacekeeping.

Issue: "Troops hunt for weapons," June 14, 2003

This is the Baghdad that Westerners never saw. When Saddam Hussein trotted world leaders through his capital, he carefully avoided the sprawling slum on the northeast side. Relief groups mostly avoided the place, and taxi drivers refused to go in. Even the Catholic Church never managed to make any inroads. It may have borne his name, but Saddam City, ironically enough, was the one place that the dictator barely controlled. His army stayed on the outskirts, making occasional raids only when troublesome Shiite mullahs stirred their illiterate followers against the regime.

"We're the first ones to do regular patrols here," says Sgt. 1st Class Stanley Wilkins, strapping on his helmet. "Let's see what they're up to today."

The convoy of Bradley fighting vehicles lurches forward, through the front gates topped with razor wire. "I'd rather be fishing" reads the bumper of the Bradley just ahead-or serving 3 to 5 years at hard labor, maybe. Almost anything would be better than the constant patrols through Saddam City. It's hot, dirty, dangerous work in one of the most depressing places imaginable. Four hours on, four hours off. Twelve hours a day in the heart of the slum. Sgt. Wilkins has been doing it for almost six weeks now.

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"Here we go again," he says as the Bradley turns off the perimeter road and into Saddam City proper. Almost immediately the welcoming committee appears. Children seem to materialize out of nowhere, running alongside the road and cheering the passing soldiers. "Don't be fooled," Sgt. Wilkins says. "They'll throw rocks at us after we drive by. Maybe they think it's a sign of affection."

First stop on today's patrol: Looters' Alley, a mile-long roadway where the city's infamous "Ali Babbas" bring the treasures they've lifted from their rightful owners. "Everything you see here is stolen," Sgt. Wilkins says. The side of the road is littered with every conceivable type of metal-twisted remnants of bullets, batteries, and industrial machines. A few battered trucks wait nearby, and by late this afternoon, a long convoy laden with scrap metal will be ready to set off, reportedly for the Iranian border.

There's no contraband in sight today, so the convoy heads for its next stop, a propane station that has experienced frequent riots. Even for a first-time visitor, it's easy to tell when a propane station is nearby. From many blocks in all directions, people are drawn to the station like a magnet, bringing with them empty tanks that weigh 40 pounds or more. Little girls carry a tank between them, one on either side of the canister that weighs almost as much as they do. Boys kick tanks down the dusty streets while old women in heavy black abayya balance them on their heads.

It's 8:30 a.m.-and about 85 degrees-when the Bradley pulls up to the station. More than 300 people have already waited an hour or more, and still the gates are padlocked. "Ras, ras," the women plead of the soldiers, using the Arabic word for gas. Life here revolves around propane. Even before the war, the regime often cut the power to Saddam City as a way of keeping the restive population under control. Without electricity, gas became the fuel of choice for everyday life. Now the gas, too, is in danger of running out, and people are running out of patience.

Sgt. Wilkins bangs on the gates and asks for the manager. A frightened-looking little man ushers the soldiers inside, locking the gates behind him. He points to four giant holding tanks in the walled courtyard. It takes three trucks to fill the tanks, he explains, but he gets only one truck per day, enough to supply just 490 canisters. After walking up to a mile and standing for hours in the blazing heat, the 491st person in line will go home empty-handed, lugging along a heavy, useless canister. There may be no dinner tonight, and tomorrow she'll have to try all over again.

Outside the gates, tempers are flaring already, and the manager fears a riot. Days earlier, the manager of a nearby gas station was murdered by angry drivers who had waited all day for fuel, only to be turned away at sundown. The propane manager begs U.S. troops to stay, but they have three other stations to check on. They promise to return in an hour, when the propane truck is due to arrive. Through an interpreter, Sgt. Wilkins tells the crowd outside the gates that if there's any trouble, he'll shut the station down and no one will get any gas. Women mutter and glare. The manager retreats into the padlocked courtyard. The troops leave to check on the next riot-in-waiting.

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