Special Reports

Looking for bad guys in 'the underbelly of Kirkuk'

KIRKUK, Iraq — When soldiers cross the bridge into south Kirkuk's Oruba neighborhood, they drive from calm to chaotic.

They leave behind Patrol Base Barbarian and the soccer fields, freshly stuccoed homes and well-lit shops selling hand-woven rugs, stereos and fresh fruit, where streetlights illuminate sidewalks and men smile and wave.

Roads turn to dirt in the Oruba neighborhood. Bravo Company's two Humvees and their heavy military ambulance kick up plumes of dust. Narrow roads are lined by small, closely spaced homes of cinderblock and mud. Streets are dark except for moonlight, headlights and an occasional porch light.

The Oruba neighborhood is depressing in the daytime: Garbage piled in empty lots, raw sewage in roadside ditches that settles in puddles of brown muck deep enough to bog down a Humvee. At night, the neighborhood goes from depressing to eerie — Old West meets the apocalypse.

"This is the underbelly of Kirkuk," said 1st Sgt. Steven Woodall of Boise. "It looks like a wasteland ... like something from one of those movies, like 'Mad Max' or 'Escape from New York.' "

Oruba is where Capt. Mitch Smith of Boise, Bravo Company's commander, concentrates patrols. His soldiers from the 116th Brigade Combat Team are looking for information on whoever has been planting roadside bombs — known here as IEDs, or improvised explosive devices — or launching rockets and mortars at U.S. forces at the main air base.

"That's where the bad guys are," Smith said. "The two IEDs we found were both down there."

The soldiers turn their vehicles down a dirt road dubbed "IED alley" — because that's where two IEDs exploded, although no soldiers were injured.

"Right up here is that IED we hit," said Spec. Kevin Harrington of Lewiston, pointing ahead at the ditch as he steers his Humvee down the dirt road. "Right there."

The Humvee rounds a corner. The ambulance ahead is stopped in a brown puddle. Woodall and Harrington groan. "They better not be stuck," Harrington said.

The ambulance lumbers out of the muck, and Harrington's Humvee splashes through. Harrington groans again.

"God, that stinks," he said. "Where's the (expletive) air freshener?" Plastic is torn off a pine-scented, tree-shaped air freshener — the smell engulfing the Humvee.

"It smells like an outhouse in the middle of a bunch of pine trees," Woodall said.

The patrol winds through the narrow dirt streets, the soldiers looking for suspicious people or vehicles. And any vehicle driving these streets at night is considered suspicious.

"We call it trolling, because we never know what we're going to catch," Harrington said.

The soldiers stop to talk to a group of men gathered in front a small store. While they're talking, tracer rounds streak across the sky in the distance.

The soldiers jump into the vehicles and head toward the shots. They question two young men standing outside a house. One of the men leads them inside to a house full of people: The next day is one of the men's wedding day.

The house is tidy, with painted cement walls and rugs on the cement floors. There's a satellite dish on the roof and a Pepsi poster on the refrigerator.

The family is cordial. A woman in head scarf and black robe smiles and speaks Arabic. 1st Lt. Aaron Jarnagin of Idaho Falls asks if there are any weapons in the house. Everyone shakes their heads. Jarnagin thanks them and leaves.

They approach another house. Two old women answer the door. After a few questions, the soldiers leave.

They bang on a large metal gate at another house.

"Just your friendly neighborhood occupying force," Woodall said, jokingly.

A late-model Nissan sits in the courtyard. An old 6-foot-tall Arabic man in full robe and head scarf answers the soldiers' knock. His family peeks from the hallway. His agitated wife yells at the soldiers in Arabic. The soldiers ask their questions: Anyone have weapons? Seen anything suspicious? No and no are the answers.

"It's always the same," Smith said. "No one is ever bad who lives in the neighborhood. It's always someone" from somewhere else.

The soldiers decide that the shots were probably "celebratory," not aimed at U.S. soldiers. Smith calls an end to the patrol at 10 p.m., and the soldiers' vehicles rumble out of Oruba, crossing the bridge back to paved roads and well-lit streets and the patrol base.

"All right, we made it," said Harrington, jacking a live round out of his M-4 carbine.