"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.
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."
"What do my soldiers do that scares them?" asks Capt. Rainey. The man complains about noise, tanks, and humvees. But in mid-sentence he changes course, complaining instead that electricity is sporadic. It's too hot to live indoors without running fans, he says.
Capt. Rainey explains that it is difficult to keep electricity going when terrorists place bombs under the power lines. He asks those in the crowd if they understand that. No one answers. "I tell my soldiers to treat the people of Ghazalia with dignity and respect. If they aren't doing that I want to know," he says. The crowd listens quietly.
One of the men from the crowd says in English, "We want the electricity on like you have in America. And the sewage fixed. We want good lives. We know how you live there and we think you bring that to us. But you bring terror and scare the people."
Capt. Rainey asks who is detonating the bombs. The university student replies, "These are the radical crazy people who follow anyone because they are ignorant. They make the bombs." Another man says, "We do not want the American coalition to leave now because I ask you, what will we do? These people will take our country."
Capt. Rainey is unmoved by the fickleness of the street. He believes that the war in Iraq will be won on these awkward encounters. "After spending one week in Ghazalia I knew that we are supposed to be here," he said. Since the U.S. goal is to help Iraq transition to a new government, "I know that my company has the same objective-to ensure that Ghazalia is safe and secure so they can transfer to a new government on a smaller personal level."
Along with patrolling the streets, Bravo Company and its parent unit, the 91st Combat Engineers, have refurbished a building in Ghazalia that will soon open as an all-girls school, the first in the neighborhood. Such projects are designed to build confidence on the street toward both local governing officials and the U.S. military, as well as to deter insurgents.
But insurgency is never far away. Capt. Rainey's soldiers have faced sniper attacks (see World, May 22, 2004, "Inside the 'Beast'") and are constantly on alert for suicide bombers. Three of his men died when roadside bombs detonated as their vehicles passed along the road. Those deaths had a significant impact on Capt. Rainey and his company. "I was not prepared for the deaths, but it doesn't change how we view the neighborhood." He hangs his head as he remembers. "It was personal and emotional," he said, but "we cannot let it affect our focus."
As tension seeps out of the crowd and the nighttime patrol ends, Capt. Rainey knows he is concluding his last walk through Ghazalia. Army commanders are transferring him to a desk job in downtown Baghdad where his superiors will use his street wisdom to enhance a constantly evolving strategy to end terrorist attacks.
"God created every emotion and we know that while He tells us in the Bible that He is peaceful and loving, He gets angry and jealous as well. So I think what God is trying to tell us is that the emotion itself is not bad but the things we humans do, as part of the emotion, can be bad," he says by way of summarizing what he's learned in Ghazalia. "The Old Testament is full of warriors who fought for God's people. Joshua is the original company commander. He led a small number of people against a large army. Because of his faith in God he was able to overcome."
Capt. Rainey finishes his last mission with wariness for his troops and hope for the neighborhood. "As much as I love the people in Ghazalia, I know that there are people here who want to hurt us. I think by carrying guns my soldiers protect themselves." Two U.S. helicopters hum low overhead, but Capt. Rainey is thinking about Ghazalia's future. "My hope is to see the kids of Ghazalia walk out their front door without having to tip-toe through sewage and trash. I want each person to be able to choose to have electrical power on or off by a flip of a switch. What I don't want is when a kid sees an American soldier to pick up a rock and throw it at us. And, finally, I would like to see a local government the people trust."
-with reporting by Mindy Belz