Cover Story

Bravo Company's story

Rooting out bad guys, turning on the lights, pushing paper, turning away wrath-it's all in a (last) day's work in war. And in Iraq, any day could be the last

Issue: "Iraq: Bravo Company's story," Aug. 21, 2004

"We hate American ­soldiers," an Iraqi man snaps at Capt. Michael Rainey. He speaks from the back of a crowd, eight men all in their mid-20s. The green glow of a fluorescent light from the small store reveals a ­stubbled beard on the agitated Iraqi's face. He folds his arms across his chest, prepared for a soldierly retort. Capt. Rainey says only, "OK."

The men have gathered in this west Baghdad neighborhood where four desert-tan U.S. Army humvees park ­spaciously. M-113 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles (which the civilians call tanks) block the entrance to the neighborhood. Gunners perch on top of each vehicle, their hands resting tranquilly across machine guns, at ease but ready. One car passes through after a quick look and consent from the U.S. soldiers.

A man in a flowing white robe with three children at his side walks by one of the armed vehicles. The children seemingly ignore the soldiers. They attend to the soft melting chocolate and pistachio ice cream that drips down the sides of the white wafer cones they hold. Neighborhood children surround several soldiers who have climbed out of the vehicles. The children poke at their uniforms, asking for candy. Residents along the street stand or sit in front of their houses. Some bring out lawn chairs to watch the show.

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Twenty-eight-year-old Michael Rainey is from Georgetown, Tex., where his wife Lisa and a beagle named Indy await his return. A West Point graduate, Capt. Rainey took charge of Bravo ­Company, 88 soldiers based outside Baghdad, when he arrived in Iraq in ­January. He has 33 additional men or women under his command, attached for support from the Bradley unit. Their assignment: control and patrol Ghazalia district, a stretch of suburban neighborhoods packed with at least 150,000 ­residents, storefronts, mosques, and potential insurgency outposts six miles west of downtown Baghdad.

Ghazalia under Saddam Hussein was at the prospering end of Baghdad, where the former ruler built his infamous Mother of All Battles Mosque in 1999. Sunnis and Shiites live together here, but the dictator showed favoritism to Sunnis and fellow Baathists; they built dozens of mosques in Ghazalia while allowing the majority Shiites none.

Now the Shiites control Ghazalia's local council. Last year they dismissed 18 teachers who had been members of the Baath Party. Some Shiites take the law into their own hands, attacking store owners and others with ties to the old regime. In today's twilight zone between governments, Capt. Rainey's job is to ­support Ghazalia's local council and its security forces while at the same time rooting out terrorists and potential ­arsenals left over from Saddam's era.

Last week U.S. presidential contenders sparred over troop strength in Iraq. Democratic candidate John Kerry said he hoped to begin reducing the number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq within six months of taking office. President George W. Bush, campaigning in Florida, warned that ­cutting short the mission would only aid the enemy. "The key is not to set artificial timelines," he said.

In Ghazalia, Capt. Rainey says he doesn't have a political agenda and wouldn't have time for one, anyway. His focus is each day's assignment, which on this hot evening puts him and Bravo Company on the street with unhappy Iraqis. For these soldiers, the big question is who may simply want to talk and who may be packing explosives and a detonator. Capt. Rainey's months in Iraq have taught him that talk may be just that, while a ­terrorist may hide beneath the robe of a father with an ice cream cone.

The man with the stubble beard is unhappy with Capt. Rainey's first response and shouts again, "We hate American soldiers." Capt. Rainey lets a blank pause sink into the night. He asks slowly, "Are we disturbing you or harming you in some way by being here?"

A clean-shaven man standing in front of the group answers matter-of-factly and without hesitation in English, "Well, I would like to go home in my car to my house because I have to study for an exam at the university. I cannot go because you have the street blocked."

Capt. Rainey replies, "You can leave. In fact, I will have my men escort you past the blockade." The man steps back into the crowd, not really interested in taking the offer. For the third time the bearded man intones, "We hate American soldiers." Capt. Rainey asks the man if his soldiers have done something bad to him or his neighborhood. The man waves his arms and says, "They scare the people."

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