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.
"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.
Back in the Bradley, Sgt. Wilkins shrugs off the palpable tension at the propane station. "It's not as bad as they made it out to be," he says of Saddam City. "We thought they were going to be shooting at us every day, but it's relatively quiet." In the beginning American troops would confiscate two dozen AK-47s every day, plus countless mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and so forth. Now they might get a single automatic weapon in 24 hours of round-the-clock patrolling. No one believes they've actually captured all the guns; people are just leaving them at home instead of carrying them openly in the streets. In Saddam City, that counts as major progress.
The heavily armed population, combined with incendiary statements by some Shiite clerics, has led to heightened security concerns in Saddam City. Every member of the three-man crew knows the Bradley is a potential target. The best they can do is stay alert and try to keep the target moving. Traffic stops make everyone nervous. Brought to a standstill by a line of cars waiting for gasoline, the driver, Pfc. David Padilla, bangs on the dashboard in frustration. His crucifix, hanging from a small oscillating fan on the windshield, jiggles in response. As Pfc. Padilla tries to back up and find another route, Sgt. Herman Herrera rotates 360 degrees in the vehicle's open gun turret, scanning the street for any threatening moves. "You've got the right," he calls to Sgt. Wilkins, who is riding with the passenger door slightly ajar in case of trouble.
A few moments later, he finds some. "Back up, back, up!" he shouts at Pfc. Padilla before jumping out of the Bradley and sprinting off on foot. The driver slams the vehicle into reverse, and Sgt. Herrera spins in the gun turret to keep Sgt. Wilkins within his sights. Bystanders scatter as the Bradley climbs a curb and careens down narrow alleyways, pulling down low-hanging electrical wires. Sgt. Wilkins rounds a corner and stops suddenly. The Bradley pulls up right behind him.
"We've got a gun," he says to Sgt. Herrera, who is already halfway out of the vehicle with his own sidearm drawn. Pfc. Padilla scrambles to replace him in the turret, securing the Bradley and keeping the gathering crowd at bay. "AK-47," Sgt. Wilkins says. "He went into one of these houses. I couldn't tell which one." A woman swoops in to remove a young child from a neighboring doorway as the two soldiers enter the first house. At either end of the alley, a large crowd is gathering, shouting at each other-and the soldiers-in Arabic. The other Bradley with the all-important translator is nowhere in sight. Pfc. Padilla rotates back and forth, pointing his gun just above the heads of the crowd on either side. No translation is needed; they keep their distance.
After a few minutes, the soldiers return empty-handed. The suspect disappeared over the interconnected rooftops into the maze of Saddam City, but Sgt. Wilkins isn't giving up yet. He goes back to the square where he first spotted the man and nabs a shopkeeper he'd been talking to. "Tell him he's got two minutes to tell us who the guy was," Sgt. Wilkins says through the tardy translator. "Otherwise we arrest him." As the shopkeeper pleads total ignorance, the crowd gathers again, pressing in from all sides. They're still shouting in Arabic, though it's impossible to say whether they're being helpful or threatening. "Get back," Sgt. Wilkins shouts periodically, lunging toward the crowd with an outstretched arm. They fall back about two steps, then slowly begin inching forward once more. Tensions are high. Sgt. Wilkins is sweating heavily, and not just from the recent chase.
In the end, the Americans get back into the Bradley without the suspect or the shopkeeper, who insisted he'd never seen the man before. Sgt. Wilkins explains that he only wanted to confiscate the gun; its owner would have walked away. They can't arrest everyone who strolls around Saddam City with an automatic weapon. There are simply too many of them. Only the gun dealers, who used to operate openly in the sprawling outdoor marketplace, face any jail time.
The marketplace is the next stop. It stretches for more than five blocks, a jumble of tents and stands selling every conceivable commodity. Chickens and other unrecognizable creatures hang unprotected in the wilting heat. Nearby, barefoot children poke through mounds of garbage piled three feet high for blocks on end. At the sight of the Bradley, they leave off their hunt. "Money?" they ask, rubbing together their thumb and forefinger. "Water?" They pantomime for the things they don't know: cigarettes, beef jerky, even a soldier's watch. "Wisek?" repeatedly asks one boy, who can't be more than 10 years old. When "wisek" doesn't ring a bell, he drinks from an imaginary bottle, crosses his eyes, and lolls his head to one side. Whiskey? "Whiskey!" he proclaims triumphantly. "Whiskey good. Whiskey, Mister?"
From the driver's-side window, Pfc. Padilla occasionally hands a big purple 250 dinar note to one of the children. It's worth less than 20 cents in American money, and most people expect the currency to be phased out soon because it bears Saddam's image. Still, to the happy recipient, the note is an unbelievable treasure. One girl clutches hers to her chest as she's mobbed by admiring friends. Another boy holds his overhead in both hands and dances in a circle until he falls over.
Many of the children don't ask for anything at all. They just follow the Bradley as it inches along through the crowd, giving a thumbs-up and repeating "Good! Good!" over and over again. Some shout "Thank you, Bush!" while others pull out money and spit on the picture of Saddam. Adults, too, seem genuinely pleased to see the Americans. Women smile broadly and men hold up their little girls to wave at the troops. One boy walks alongside for nearly half an hour, proudly displaying his T-shirt emblazoned with an American flag. When the Bradley finally turns onto an empty street and speeds away, the little boy just stands forlornly in a cloud of dust, still holding his shirt up by the shoulders, as if he expected it would win him a ride.
For the soldiers, meanwhile, this particular ride is almost over. They didn't find any guns in the market this time, just a bunch of bayonets that they confiscated only because the owner tried to hide them. After a 10-minute drive back to base, they've got four hours to rest up before their next foray into Saddam City, when it all starts again.
Despite the routine and the smiles and the throngs of adoring children, Sgt. Wilkins and company say they're thankful every time they get back in one piece. Routine patrols don't make headlines, but they can still make epitaphs. On this day, all across Iraq, there were some 2,000 patrols just like theirs. On this day, 1,999 of them returned safely to base. But one didn't: A soldier patrolling near Baghdad International Airport was killed when someone threw a bomb at his Humvee.
That soldier wasn't named Wilkins or Herrera or Padilla, but he could have been. Any given day, on any given patrol, they could be the ones to catch the bomb or the bullet, and they know it. "Have a safe trip home," Sgt. Wilkins says to a reporter whose assignment is over. "Let's just hope we get there soon."